When Charlie Bell came running by, Carl’s wife Penny was standing on her porch in her apron, whispering, “He was there, that Timmons boy – so disrespectful.” Susan was sipping from her third tall glass of lemonade. Across the street someone was yelling.
“Nobody should be running in the streets with all them crazy drivers out there, boy! We don’t need no more of them black cars lining up for anymore of your family!”
But Charlie wasn’t listening. Instead he staggered to a chair beside Susan and snatched her lemonade from her hand. It was gone within two, three gulps, and the glass was back on the table with a loud smack. Penny began to reprimand Charlie for taking Susan’s drink as he licked the spittle and lemonade from his lips.
“Jake Hall was on Main,” Charlie said.
The tired sun reached out to kiss their sandal-wrapped toes. Penny’s cry died prematurely, her tongue left exposed to the dry air. Susan’s fingers twitched instinctively to her lips to make sure her lipstickhadn’t shriveled in the heat. She curled her toes in her sticky leather shoes, feeling the sweat run between them.
“Where on Main, Charlie?” Susan’s voice quivered.
Charlie shook his head as his breath came out in haggard wisps. “Let me, breathe.”
Susan clamped her mouth shut. She watched as Charlie leaned back against his chair and let his head fall behind him. He pulled the straps of his denim overalls back onto his shoulders and over his black t-shirt as his breathing slowed. Susan shifted her gaze to the road in front of the porch. A green 1972 VW Bug cruised by, honking as it passed, and several hands flew out the windows and waved. She ignored them. Across the street, the General Store’s sign teetered on its pole off the side of the small brick building. There was dust rising in the air, and it clung to the hair of children playing on the street, and the bare stomachs of teenagers carrying inner tubes toward the high school pool.
“He’s at Phil’s shop, on Main and Miller,” Charlie suddenly breathed. Susan was immediately on her feet and running. Her hair flicked back and forth as she ran down the steps and onto the street, her heart drumming in her thighs and her collarbones. She faintly registered Penny shouting after her. But all she heard was the flapping of her soles against the pavement, her heavy breaths. It seemed to take years for her to finally get to Main, down a block to Miller.
By the time she reached Phil Turner’s car shop, Jake was no where to be seen.
Damn you, Charlie Bell, Susan thought as she bent over and clutched her shaky knees. He must have seen you and flown as fast as he could. She imagined Jake was already zipping toward the I-40 in his old red mustang, his pale hair flapping and the sun streaming onto his lap. No – she was with him, and the sun was on her bared legs, too, tickling her all the way up to the edge of her skirt. Susan imagined they were driving away together.
The fantasy was like a well worn photograph, handled too many times. She, like the other 1383 people in their town on the boarder of Arizona and New Mexico, wanted to get out. She wanted to go east to Houston, or west to Phoenix, even Los Angeles. No one had ever made it anywhere, though. Some one always ended up in a car wreck, with a flat tire, or had their air-condition unit die spontaneously. Darlene had managed to leave, but she had always come back.
Maybe that was the trick, some people said late at night at the town’s only bar. You had to want to come back. But no one but Darlene ever wanted to, up until the last day of her life.
Susan and Jake had planned to get out together, to never come back. But he’d always say, Wait ‘til graduation, after I’ve given my speech. So desperate Susan had gone to Grant Timmons, but he was no different. After the baseball season’s out, Susan.
Susan straightened her back and stood, pulling down her skirt with her sweaty hands. She cracked her neck and stretched. She saw something out of the corner of her eye, and nearly jumped out of her skin when she looked over, and her heart thundered against her lungs. He had been so deathly quiet that Susan hadn’t noticed Grant Timmons himself standing against his blue pick-up not even twenty yards from her.
Her hand went automatically to her hair, but Grant wasn’t paying attention to her; he was looking in the direction of the I-40 ramp a few miles away, and some rising dust. His chin seemed oddly close to his chest and his arms were folded. How strange, Susan thought as she stepped closer to him, her shoes crackling against the stones on the concrete. “Shameless Grant” – that’s what her drunkard of a mother called him – would have called her over by now, spoken to her by now. He would have kissed her by now. He never waited around, and if he did he always found someone to occupy his time. But as Susan inched closer to him, Grant didn’t move or look at her. His dark hair winked in the heat.
The old pang of pleasure went spinning in Susan’s stomach when she looked at him. She shrugged off any concern and reached out to touch Grant’s arm.
“Hey, handsome. Haven’t seen you in a while.”
Grant’s head snapped toward her, and Susan felt the surge of a smile play at the edges of her lips. His face remained stoic and his eyes blank. Her hand moved to his chest; he pulled away. Her lips moved to his and he turned. Susan laughed uncertainly.
“What’s wrong with you, Grant? Not a hug or a kiss? That’s not like you at all.”
She could feel the sun pulsing on her sandy hair and her calves. Sweat dribbled down her chest and into her bra. Behind Grant, his worn pick-up shone dully into her eyes. As she squinted, she imagined the blank look was momentarily chased out of Grant’s eyes, something finally registering there, and his hot arm was around her. The hair on his forearm stuck to the delicate flash of skin between her tank top and skirt.
Susan wrapped her arms expectantly around Grant’s neck, but his back remained rigid and he did not move closer to her. She remained there a moment, but when Grant did nothing, she leaned back to look at him. He was looking out at the road behind her.
Her brow creased unpleasantly. “Grant?”
There was a strange look in his eye as Grant pushed Susan away and held her at arms length. He reached behind him pulled the door to his blue truck open. On the rear-view mirror the navy leaf of air-freshener swung.
He looked at her. “Get in.”
Susan was sitting in that room again. It looked different from the last time she was there almost a month ago, and the lack of light was only the beginning. Usually all the windows were left open so that the sun could spill in like warm butter; it was one of the things that had always made Darlene’s house so welcoming. Instead someone had closed all the blinds.
There weren’t any lilies standing in the chicken vases on the tables anymore, either. That was probably the only change Susan approved of. How tacky, she had thought as she had stood looking at them in her tight black dress. The chickens had looked too happy and the pink lilies with their crimson stems seemed too much like blood. They had made Susan anxious.
But everyone had assured her that they were what Darlene would have wanted.
It was more than just the flowers and the vases that were gone, though. It seemed that all traces of Darlene’s trinkets and trademark belongings had disappeared. The wooden frames that held the family and friends had been taken down. The whicker baskets, fake ivy and ceramic chickens that Darlene had used to decorate the top of the kitchen cabinets had been removed too. From her seat, Susan could see that even all the refrigerator magnets Darlene had collected over the years had been swept away, as if her journeys, like pencil marks on a map, had been erased.
She shuddered. One of the reasons why Susan had loved Darlene so much was because she had gotten away from the town, actually went places and saw things. Darlene had been the only one to leave, because she always came back. It’s home, darlin’, Darlene had told her; you can leave, but you’ll always come back. Our blood’s in the dirt here. We can’t run from that.
Susan tugged at the hem of her skirt. The once beige walls were white, and the rust-colored couches they sat on were covered in dark denim slipcovers. Her fingers fidgeted as she cleared her throat. Grant, who sat across from her, cradled a glass of water in his hands.
Susan couldn’t help but feel out of place. The feeling made her skin itch and shrivel, becoming too tight on her. It was the same way she felt at the wake. Inside of her, she could still smell the smothering lilies and feel her spiked heels sink into the carpet. She could still see Grant standing in the corner by the sliding patio door, hands sitting awkwardly in the pockets of his slacks. No one had approached him that day. Not even little Charlie Bell, who cared nothing for the family feud, was allowed to leave his seat to talk to Grant. Charlie had been Darlene’s nephew, after all; he had had to pretend Grant didn’t exist.
Grant was a Montague in a Capulet house. He wasn’t supposed to be there.
No one knew for sure when the grudge against each house had started: maybe it had begun with their grandfathers and Miss Natalie Clay. Maybe even before that. All anyone knew was the Timmons and the Halls didn’t mix; they were best kept apart.
Susan wondered when Jake would be home.
“Why’d you bring me here, Grant?” Susan scratched her arm. Grant blinked and sighed.
“Come on, Susan. We both know you don’t run that fast for me. You were trying to see Jake Hall.”
Susan searched for a strand of hair and twisted it. So he had been paying attention when she ran up. “That’s not–”
“Yes, it is. You would have gone to the trailer park if you wanted to find me. Instead you’ve got Charlie on the look out for Jake wherever he goes.”
Susan felt her stomach grow cold and her skin hot. Grant’s voice was so clam, yet it was like he was digging into her flesh. For an athlete, he was never overtly violent. He was the one that always watched, his aggression always passive. His words were enough to make you want to harm yourself. It was Jake who was the physical one. “You don’t know that.”
“We’ve seen Charlie come around the house a couple times this past month.”
Susan took an unsure breath. “You’ve been with Jake this entire time?”
Grant shrugged, his unwavering eyes holding hers. Susan grabbed another lock of hair between her fingers. He wasn’t saying anything. It wasn’t like him.
“That’s impossible. Jake hates you.”
“I’ve been trying to talk to him since tenth grade, Susan.” Grant rose. “You and I both know this whole thing between our families has been fueled too long. Jake seemed to see that, after a while. He finally started talking back.” He moved to take his glass to the kitchen sink at the far end of the adjoined kitchen and great room. There was a window above the sink, its blinds closed, and Grant stood in front of it. After a moment, he spoke again.
“Have you ever noticed that habit of Jake’s when he’s washing dishes?”
It took Susan a while to find her voice. Her tongue felt dry from shock. “Of course I have,” she eventually said. She smoothed down her skirt as she rose and walked over to Grant. “I practically grew up with him.”
Susan had spent a lot of time with Darlene and Jake at their house during high school. After dinner, she and Jake always did the dishes together before sneaking to his room and discussing their escape plans, which roads to avoid because of the frequency of accidents. Usually Jake was reluctant to do the dishes; he may have been a good student, but Jake hated chores. He always did them, though, with Susan at his side. Often, once the stack by the sink was cleaned and tucked away, Jake would stop with one last dish in his hand. He would hold it above the sink, watching its reflection in the steel and water. Susan, next to him drying the dishes with his mother’s red checkered towels, watched, waited.
Jake’s eyes were always so turbulent, his mouth always calm, before he dropped the dish or utensil into the sink and finished washing it. Susan had loved to look at him in those moments; she felt she owned the world.
Grant stood in Jake’s place now, watching as the sink filled with water
“Help me do the dishes?” His eyes were blank and his voice dull.
Susan shrugged. She didn’t think she had a choice. Besides, Jake might be home soon.
In one hand, Susan took the sudsy cup from Grant as he finished scrubbing it. In the other, she reached to her left and pulled out a towel from the drawer. It was blue.
Susan felt her fingers freeze momentarily, but she remained by Grant’s side, her hands absently drying the plates and cups he washed. She tried to lull herself by the rhythmic motion of drying the plates she was handed. But the sound of the water in the sink being displaced, moving from end to end of the sink as Grant washed the dishes, pulled Susan’s attention away from the drying. She looked over at Grant. Shameless Grant was also rational, cool-headed. He had managed to get Jake to talk to him after Darlene’s death. Susan’s stomach knotted in jealousy.
Strips of light from the blinds streaked across Grant’s face, and they made Susan frown. She didn’t like the lack of light in Darlene’s house anymore; her fingers itched for the red towels.
“You two’ve done a good job getting rid of Darlene, haven’t you?”
Grant sighed, his hands still moving in the water.
“It was Jake’s way of dealing, Susan.”
Susan’s toes curled.
“Replacing her with you isn’t exactly dealing.”
The last dish was in the rack, and the blue towel on the counter. Grant gripped the edge of the sink and looked into the water.
“Unlike most people in this town, I know what it’s like to lose a mother too soon. Jake needed someone who understood that Darlene was all he ever had.”
Susan’s forehead creased. “He had me.”
At this Grant scoffed, his nose wrinkled in disgust. He looked over at Susan, his dark eyes dull, his mouth contorted.
“You said that to me when my mom died, too – remember?” Susan felt her heart plummet into her still cold stomach. No, she didn’t remember.
“We never had you, Susan. Pretty Susan, nervous Susan. Susan with red lips and restless fingers.” Grant reached into the sink and let the water drain. “You were never able to decide which one of us you wanted more; always afraid one of us would leave you first. All you cared about was which one would get you out of here fastest.”
She could hear Grant take a deep breath, see his chest rise and fall.
“Do you know what it’s like to have nightmares about your mother’s death, Susan? Jake was in that car with her. They were going to start a new life and Darlene died. Jake will relive the accident over and over when he falls asleep at night. He’ll fall off his bed, he will thrash and retch and he won’t be able to wake up. If you were with him – you wouldn’t stand it. All you know is how to make Nikki’s tonics for her when she’s passed out from getting too many visitors to buy her too many drinks. You wouldn’t know what to do for Jake.”
Susan took a step away from Grant, shocked by the slight against her mother. She was suddenly under the vent, and the cool air hitting her back froze her.
“And you’re saying you do.”
Grant’s eyes were vacant as he stared at her. “I’ve been through this once before, Susan. I know no one should have to live through it alone.”
Turning from her, Grant made his way back to the loveseat and sat. Susan’s fingers and face felt hot and cold, spasmodically alternating between the two as she stepped toward the couches in the great room. Pretty Susan, nervous Susan; never able to decide which one of us you wanted more; always afraid one of us would leave you first. Grant’s words prodded her like ice picks in her head. She tried to think of the desert sun through a windshield, on her legs and bare arms, next to Jake and his honey hair. In the red mustang, driving away.
Susan felt her feet tense in her shoes. “When’s Jake coming home?”
Grant didn’t turn toward her. “This isn’t his home anymore.”
She felt her fingers flinch. “What do you mean? You were living here, with him.”
Susan watched Grant lean forward, his arms against his knees. “Not after today.”
Grant sighed and stood, facing Susan again. He put his hands in his pockets and stared straight at her. “He’s gone, Susan. He left half an hour ago. Go check his room if you want; there’s nothing left. This house doesn’t even belong to him anymore.”
Susan smiled despite the fear in her stomach. Jake wouldn’t leave her; they had plans.
“He can’t be gone, Grant. He and I are leaving together – we were going to go next month, toward Phoenix, to his father’s for a while. We’re going to get out of here.”
“Weren’t we going to get out of here together, Susan? We were going to go to Dallas.”
Her fingers gripped the hem of her shirt. “I–”
“See what I mean? You could never choose between the two of us.”
He looked at her and she looked away. Susan stared at the empty walls.
“He’ll be back. Darlene always came back; he will too.”
Grant looked at Susan, his eyes tired and head shaking. He turned from her one last time as he made his way toward the front door. His feet left impressions in the carpet as Susan followed him. When she reached the patch of tile in front of the doorway, she stopped.
Susan intertwined her fingers painfully.
“How’d you make it work?”
Grant already had the door open. “I didn’t – we fought a lot. He pushed me around and I cleaned.”
You can leave, but you’ll always come back. Darlene’s words echoed in Susan’s ear; our blood’s in the dirt here. Jake hadn’t left her – he would come back. She would have more months and years with him yet. She felt a surge of a smile play in her chest and on the edges of her lips again. She would have that languid sun on her bare legs, her boy with butter hair in a red mustang, and the wind as they drove from the town, west, west and away.
Outside, the tired sun licked the pavement, kissing sandal-wrapped toes on porches and iced lemonade. The siren of the town’s only ambulance sounded as it headed towards the I-40 already several miles in the distance.