It’s like he already knows that things leave, and when a thing leaves it marks something and doesn’t go back on it.
I don’t drink like I used to. Not since Otis. At least, since he’s gotten older. When he was young I could put him in the other room for bed and it didn’t matter if it was six o’clock and he wasn’t tired; he couldn’t talk anyway. That’s not how it works anymore. He talks. Asks things. And even if he doesn’t know anything about me, he notices things. Noticing things is what kids do.
When I was pregnant I read my cards. There was the empress and the emperor. Ren was across from me and he didn’t care about the cards. That’s why I kept it. Him, him. Otis. It didn’t look like it was going to be me alone. Otherwise, I’d have done it, gotten the abortion. Obviously now it’s too late for that.
Maybe it’s an ugly thing to say but ugly is everywhere all the same. The railroad tracks behind the Shell station. The porta potties leaned up against the station’s wall. How that’s straight across the street to the south and the north is barely-there thorn brush good enough for the coyotes and whatever the hell it is that they tear the fucking shit out of in the night. How you can hear it even when you close the window.
I leave the window open. I’d rather hear it that way if I’m going to hear it. It doesn’t make Otis cry or anything.
At five o’clock Lisa comes over with Syd. She does this about every eight days or so: shows up before dinner so that I have to feed Syd, too. Spaghetti-O’s and those cornbread muffins that you simply add water to. Otis doesn’t like them that much but I have the things for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Lisa eats one real fast once she sits down. For a dancer, she doesn’t have jack shit for money. Then again, the men around here don’t have jack shit for money, so it makes sense.
She complains about the other girls at the bar and I couldn’t care less about it all.
If she didn’t know where I live and make a point to drag her bones over here, we wouldn’t be friends. If that were the case I would also probably not see another person besides Otis.
Otis is a quiet kid. Doesn’t bother much. He’d rather be alone than with Syd, too, I think.
Lisa’s ex-boyfriend Jericho has a bingo trailer he needs her to cover for him at the Aster County Fair tomorrow. She’s got a hot date with one of her clients, a real date at the Spaghetti Shack, at the same time. She wants me to do her a big one and take the slot for her.
“No,” I tell her. “I’m not a carnie.”
“Well, pays two hundred bucks.”
I end up saying okay.
The thing about Ren is that he is dead.
It’s crazy what people will pay for. Lisa left an hour ago. In another hour, men that we went to high school with and saw her in her cheerleader’s uniform are going to pay to see her stand on top of the bar in an old bra and a little skirt that doesn’t hide her cesarean section scar.
Like the woman who called me earlier, who has found motel charges on her husband’s credit card statement, a silk scarf under the seat of his car, and still she paid me to ask the cards if this husband is cheating on her.
Sometimes you don’t need to insult the cards by asking them the question.
Tonight I don’t get any more calls.
I get a beer from the fridge, sit on the front steps of the duplex. Otis pets the street cat. The ground rumbles. The night train must be a mile or so off. Keeping west.
I can get my eyes to unfocus if I look at the Shell sign just right. Otis says something about the cat or says something to the cat.
“Yes, sweet,” I say.
It’s no longer light out and I am thinking of Ren.
Once the tower was gone I drew the hanged man repeatedly for a full year.
I don’t read cards for myself any longer. After Ren, I removed the tower card from the deck. I decided that the next time a tower came for me, I would prefer not to have a warning. Once the tower was gone I drew the hanged man repeatedly for a full year. Who needs that? Not me. No.
Around midnight, the woman calls me back. She tells me yes, I was right. The husband cheats. Some woman named Larna. The woman who calls me cries into the phone. I don’t wonder what she looks like. I picture all the women who call me, upset with their lives, to look like my mother. The woman asks me about her future.
It’s midnight and I’m in the middle of watching Law & Order on mute with a Blue Moon. I pause, pretend that I am shuffling and selecting the cards.
Tower, I tell her.
I do not hold that this is lying. There’s a tower for everyone, usually more than one. It’s not like I’m saying I see the lovers or the two of cups.
That would be cruel.
The thing about the abortion—fictional—is that when I picture having done that, I can’t picture the different life that surely—surely? —would have come afterward. I can picture no Otis, but I cannot picture something that doesn’t still have the railroad tracks behind the Shell station, its lights coming into focus, then out, then in again, the coyotes screaming gratitude to carnal flesh and blood.
What I can picture when I go back into my history and invent this new event is this: I see Ren picking me up from Planned Parenthood or wherever I would have gone. I see Ren setting me up on the couch with ginger ale and a bag of Fritos and I see us watching Pulp Fiction or one of those other Tarantino movies he loved so much and I don’t know how long it takes for women who’ve had an abortion to want to get fucked again, but whatever that time-lapse is, I can picture it and I can picture it ending for me maybe a day or two sooner than most because it’s me and Ren and this is my imagination, and I pick up right there and I can see it: Ren laying me down in my not quite a queen bed, window open, no breeze, sweat making us smell like us, Ren fucking me hard the way that made us get rid of my headboard back at the start of us, the coyotes there, somewhere out in the blue, tearing through a dog or deer, some wretched flesh, some other wretched flesh somewhere north of us.
At six I wake up to drag the landlady’s garbage can out to the curb. Forgot last night. I do a few chores for her and in return, she’s nice with me about rent if I’m late or can’t fill the little laundry card. That kind of small stuff. I throw my empties from last night into her bin and stand there at the end of the driveway in my pajama shorts and Chevy tank top. When the early train runs by, I wonder if anyone sees me from the window. I see men pump gas into trucks across the street.
Two hours until Otis will wake up. The thing about mornings is that they aren’t so bad. We eat cereal. We talk about the last night’s dreams. It’s when morning fades out that it’s different—something is different. I go back inside and make instant coffee. Even in this heat I never mind drinking hot things. Temperatures don’t influence me. The coffee is fine, I like it well enough.
There was one time when Ren had a joint and asked me to read his cards. We were sleeping together by then and it was just before he began loving me. The reading was full of the cards that people who don’t read tarot assume are bad: devil, death, those types. I did, I do, read tarot, though, so I knew not to get distracted by those false faces. One of the last cards was the two of cups and because I already was beginning to love Ren, I fixated. The best card in a reading if you are looking for love. When the next card was the ten of swords, I didn’t mind it and Ren had lost interest. Instead of hearing about the swords, Ren lifted my shirt, held my nipple in his mouth, and scattered the cards as he lowered my body to the ground with the folding weight of his.
The thing about Otis is that he doesn’t look like Ren and I can’t decide if that is better or worse.
After I pour the cereal, I wonder if I can go for it: If I can drop Otis off at Lisa’s for a few hours, cancel my two clients, go buy a six-pack and watch our wedding video for the afternoon.
Otis wants to see the trains, though. Trains. I think about trains for a little bit and decide that, yes, I can watch a train today. That sounds like something I can do. I decide to save Lisa’s for when it doesn’t. That happens sometimes.
The thing about Otis is that he doesn’t look like Ren and I can’t decide if that is better or worse.
When the coyotes get a dog I wonder if they know their resemblance, their lineage.
I saw the train station crumble once we got there. Not in front of me in the way that would send debris flying at Otis and me. It was in my head but not a fantasy of the moment. A dream from last night, that I only just remembered. I know it was a dream because as soon as the image came back, I realized the station was not the station as it was before me, but the station was the station as a tower, or something tower-like.
The station is short and stout. It has a Dunkin Donuts inside. I let Otis run ahead of me to get a donut. I rub my eyes clear. Not even the train moves. There are a few ladies about my mom’s age waiting at the platform for their cue to board. Headed wherever.
Otis and I take the furthest bench on the platform with two strawberry sprinkle donuts. I don’t have to tell him not to run on the platform or anything like that. He’s good with sitting and watching like we are. He wants to see the train until it becomes unseeable. He doesn’t throw a fit or anything once he can’t see it. It’s like he already knows that things leave, and when a thing leaves it marks something and doesn’t go back on it.
At home, the machine blinks and I know it is my mother because she is the only one who calls me. She wants to know why I left her grandson with that stripper last Thursday afternoon instead of calling her.
I delete her message.
Otis asks what stripper means.
“It means Mimi’s crazy.”
When we found out that I was carrying a boy, I thought, at least I never have to give someone the period talk. I thought, good. Ren can take the hard stuff. Ren was excited like that, too. About being a dad. About having to explain balls and strippers. Or, at least, he would have been excited about having to explain balls and strippers had he arrived at the time when such a conversation would be necessary.
Once Ren was excited, I was excited too. I was excited to be Ren’s family.
Ren didn’t give me the eye if I asked him for a sip of his beer, either, just a sip. He went out and bought a forty-dollar bottle of red wine, took a sharpie, and wrote Baby Boy Tucker on the bottle. Ren said that we’d toast with it the day I came home from the hospital.
How it went was like this: I chucked that bottle at the Shell’s cement wall out by the porta-potties and I left the shards there hoping that somebody’s tire or foot would catch it.
On weekdays Otis and I watch The Price Is Right. When he was first learning to talk, he called it the price is rice. Not that he knew what rice was. He just got the words wrong, made them rhyme.
Kids need things to rhyme.
Then again, so do the adults who call me.
Otis gets excited by the rat-tat-tat of the spinning wheel and mimics the sound. I stare at the screen and wonder how the hell people wind up on this goddamn show. It makes me think of bile, the brown rot in every stomach, when I think of these people getting in their cars, leaving Ohio or whatever breadbasket they came from, to drive out to no-doubt Los Angeles, just to put on their best ugly shirt and let all of daytime TV know how badly they want to win a free washer and dryer.
I don’t remember when The Price Is Right became something that I watch, but it has, and even though the people make me think of bile, I don’t have a thought on my routinely watching it either way.
Someone must have won because Otis claps. He always claps for people. I’m thinking about the train and wondering why a better dream can’t come.
Here’s a dream I’d like to have: Me laying down on the train tracks 3 a.m., beside Ren, looking for the Palisades but being stuck with clouds. Ren knew all of the different trains’ times. When they came, when they went, how long they stopped for. How exactly that all changed if they were running ahead or behind. How even if they were running late, 3 a.m. to 4 a.m. was the hour that never had a train come through it. So the tracks could be ours if we wanted them. Even in the dream, I’d take the cloud covering the Palisades. I’d take Ren giving up on the stars, turning to me, letting me kiss where the back of his ear met his skull.
That’s a dream I’d like to have instead.
Nothing would be fine, too.
Lisa walks in without a knock. Which is fine. It’s not like there’s anything for her to interrupt, anything for her to see. She gives me a tear of notebook paper with scribbled instructions from Jericho. It’s got a few phone numbers written down on it, too. One for Jericho and one for the buddy that promised he’d come and pack up the trailer. All I have to do is babysit the bingo goers. Collect money. Not steal it. Call out B12. B3. So on. Lisa doesn’t care about whether or not I am a competent bingo presider. She wants to know which seer-sucker top of hers I like best on her and if she can borrow my lipstick.
“It’s on the vanity,” I say. I point her to my room. Otis follows Lisa like he wants to play excited, too.
I can hear Lisa rummage and tell Otis about the funnel cake he’ll get to eat helping Uncle Jericho. This moniker is stretchier than Lisa’s booty pants. Otis doesn’t even call Lisa “Aunt.” He has never met any of her exes. Besides, Otis has no aunts, has no uncles.
There is only me.
Sometimes it was easy to believe that Ren was born out of thin air—tobacco gasoline air, but air nonetheless. Every person has a family by birthright. Not every person remains tethered to that said family.
I loved that about Ren—his family-less-ness. I could picture him, somewhere far off in the east, germinating at the top of an ancient fir tree, landing on this earth in the conifer capsule of a pinecone. Hitting the ground and growing man-legs instead of roots, walking west, walking, without knowing it, towards me.
I would tell Ren that he fell from a fir tree and he’d smile in a toothy way of a man who wants the woman that he’s talking to to be right.
When I found out about Otis, that he was germinating, I discovered I loved Ren’s family-less-ness tenfold times more. There was no future grandmother around keeping watch over what I ate. There were no traditions that were suddenly my duty to keep. Ren was my love, Ren was my Venus. I was now his family. Yes, I had to become a mother for that to be true, but it was true all the same, and there was no one there to superimpose themselves over the image of me.
There was only my Ren.
Drinking like I used to helped me hold down that job. I was better with people like that.
“Have a shot with me, I’m nervous.”
I pour a tequila for Lisa and I pour a second tequila for me. Her date still isn’t for a few hours, but I do not point this out. I too want to have a tequila.
Neither one of us grimace.
It was good to have her around solely for that reason.
We have a second.
Lisa tells me that when she’s up there dancing, most of the time she sees an array of bald spots, floating out before her like little pathetic islands out there in the dark. Her date, she adds, has a full head of hair. I tell her I hope it works out then.
When Ren met me I was drinking like I used to. It was when I was working at the Blue Heron—an odd name for a bar thousands of miles from the marshy land that harbored herons. Drinking like I used to helped me hold down that job. I was better with people like that.
Ren wasn’t a person that required my being better with people in order to get to know him.
In those days when he’d order a whiskey double while I finished my shift and my gin. Then he’d lean over the bar, pinch my waist just a little bit, and we’d be off in his car. When we were in his car I’d say the things that I thought in my head over and over again silently for years and he’d look at me like he was piecing something together about himself. In the car we came up on stop signs but they didn’t matter.
The tequila tastes like the inside of Ren’s mouth.
I have one call before it’s time to get ready to go to the fair. Otis plays with the stuffed dog and stuffed cat while I shuffle, cut the deck, and ask the woman on the other end of the line to ask her guardian angels and spirit guides to send their messages through me.
I do not believe in guardian angels.
This woman is a wife and a mother and her husband is not cheating and her husband is not dead and there are no grievances against the children, either. She is just mildly unhappy, that’s all, and she wonders what the cards have to say about that.
She gets the Sun. She gets the Ace of Wands. The Wheel.
A doe for the coyotes.
I don’t like to drive but I do drive. Otis is big enough now to barely need his booster seat in the back. I buckle him in and I think he’s happy to be in the car. I think he likes the car.
When I’m in the car looking at the road my eyes unfocus without me even trying to make them do that. I could crash that way, probably.
Ren never talked about his eyes but I wonder if his unfocused, too. I think they must have.
Aster County isn’t even big enough to warrant a fair. This thing is more like the feast day carnivals that the church used to do. But this town doesn’t have a functioning church anymore. Which is just as well. Who needed one?
Not anyone here. I walk through the funnel cake worshipers and the distraction seekers until I get to the bingo trailer. Otis sucks on a strawberry taffy that we got on our way in. Five dollars for that thing. I got myself a lemonade and it hurts my mouth. I forgot that I don’t care for it much if there’s no vodka in it.
The man whose shift I am relieving him from is missing a few teeth and as skinny as me. His hair is coyote-colored. He hands me over the money apron and the microphone. When he leaves I put the microphone down. I don’t feel like using that, like hearing my voice reverberate so loudly in a tin can on wheels. There aren’t more than a dozen people playing at a time in here. They’ll hear me.
And so on.
And so on.
And a warm beer from one of the other workers.
And so on.
Kids run in and out. Otis smiles at them.
Otis runs with them. I ask for another beer. Someone calls out Bingo and they are wrong.
He was one of the bodies that arranged itself to help. Some sort of futile volunteer worker. Fireman. EMT. Bingo man. No difference.
Someone is wrong for the fourth time but this time I let them win and pretend I don’t see the error. Nobody’s won. A pretend win is better than nothing. Is this beer and this Bingo trailer and this fair and this muck of running kids better than nothing?
I am not sure.
When Jericho’s buddy comes to pick up the trailer and take the Bingo money and make sure I didn’t steal it, I know him. I knew him. I mean his body arranged itself somewhere around the body around the train tracks. He was one of the bodies that arranged itself to help. Some sort of futile volunteer worker. Fireman. EMT. Bingo man. No difference.
He does not speak to me about anything other than the Bingo trailer and I suppose that he does not remember me.
Then he asks where’s the little man. How he’s doing. My energy grows outside of my body and I’m aware Otis is separated from me.
At home with his grandmother, I tell Jericho’s buddy.
Then the trailer is gone and the space it was parked on is empty and I clutch my keys in my right hand and leave.
I drive and coyotes mark the edge of the road like froth on a mouth. Their bodies make the shape of howling and they are silent. I could be them and they could be me and none of us have anywhere to go.
Natalli Amato is the author of the poetry collections Burning Barrel and On a Windless Night. She writes for Vice, Rolling Stone, Chopra Global, and Taste of Country. She lives in Burlington, Vermont and is working on her first novel.