Joseph Rogers: Go Children Slow

There are a few different routes from here; it all depends who’s in the car with you. Say it’s her—she’s probably beside you on the front seat of a ’78 Impala with all your friends’ initials carved into the maroon foam on the roof. Her initials are right next to yours. They were the first ones. It was her idea to scratch them in with a dead pencil, and soon everyone wanted their jagged letters up there; something to be remembered by when everyone went their way after graduation. But everyone didn’t go their way after graduation. Everyone’s still right here. At least SB and DF are taking classes at Quinsig—more than you can say for yourself. When you come by their apartment each night, you know exactly what you’re in for: a handful of dudes pulling bong hits and staring at SportsCenter.

If she’s in the car, no doubt you’re late getting her home. Head down Grove St. to the Walgreens, hook a right on Forest, and follow Forest to the elementary school. There’s that exterminator’s in the old three-decker with the PEST OF THE MONTH billboard bolted to the roof—you want the left just before. That’s Paddock Ave. Lots of kids in the neighborhood so go children slow. Climb the hill and bang a left. It’s three blocks up on your right.

But maybe one quick stop first: that bakery next to the packie is still open. When you pull over to the curb, she’ll say to the windshield or the dashboard or wherever it is she’s looking that’s nowhere near your eyes, “I said I didn’t want one.” Go in anyway and buy her that Sesame Street cookie she likes. The blue one. Grover. As you come up on the Walgreens you’ll remember one of the many times you said, “Maybe we should stop.” And she said, “Yeah, we really should start using them.” And you said, “Seriously, we really should” as you drove right on past.

Look at her when you pull up to the light at the exterminator’s. She’ll be all the way over there with her head against the window. Look at the hair she dyes black once a month; the touches of acne on her cheeks; the tiny hole in her nose where she’s taken out her silver stud and stuck it through her bootlace because her mother still somehow doesn’t know. Stare at all the front seat separating you and think, There’s so much maroon between us. It will seem tragic and poetic, but you won’t be sure. She likes tragic and poetic, writes everything down in those notebooks she keeps in her backpack, the pages so filled with words that none of it looks like English. She says she’s just going to keep on writing.

You’ll wonder if you should say it, what you were thinking about the maroon, but opening your big fat mouth is what started this silent treatment in the first place. You said a stupid thing, which isn’t rare in itself, but you said a stupid thing at the wrong time. Remember? Your trapped voices bouncing louder and louder off the closed car windows until there was only one place you knew to look for a way out: math. What was it you said? “Two plus one can equal zero sometimes, you know.” Brilliant.

Sitting there in her silence you might start thinking about PD, standing under fluorescent bulbs in his Price Chopper uniform, scanning and bagging and scanning and bagging. How he told you the words “paper or plastic?” begin to merge after a while. “Papeplast?” he says, “plast?” he says, “pluh?” as shoppers file through. Then he slides his timecard, stuffs a bag of Funyuns in his jacket, a tube of cookie dough in his pant leg, and heads across the street to SB and DF’s.

If it’s December it might have just stopped snowing. Only an occasional car on the road, crunching forward, headlights glaring off all that white. The billboard bolted to the roof of the exterminator’s three stories up won’t show the Bald Faced Hornet or the Subterranean Termite, it won’t say PEST OF THE MONTH. Every year it’s the same joke: a smiling, fat-faced Santa Claus watching over everything. Above him: GUEST OF THE MONTH.

The hill will be icy, shift into low. You’ve got eight cylinders but no front wheel drive so don’t push it too hard or your tires will just spin and spin and then where will you be? You hate the smell of car heat but her feet are always cold so put the hot air on full blast. The defroster will still be shot so crack your window and keep wiping fog off the inside of the windshield. Notice those power lines above you, how they plug into home after home, how they link everything together. How it’s all so makeshift. Those wooden poles and swooping wires, it’ll seem to you technology from another age. This whole neighborhood, this whole town, lately everything’s been looking grainy and washed out, as if your eyes filmed it decades ago.

Maybe you’re a visitor from the future. You’re homesick for someplace you can’t quite remember; it feels like someone’s vacuuming out your stomach. There’s only one thing you’ll be sure you remember about the future: the sky there is maroon.

Snap out of it—your ass is in a fishtail. Go easy. Imagine tires digging into packed snow. Don’t force it.

Forget it. You can’t make it. Let yourself slide back-asswards down the hill. She won’t even turn to look at what you’re sliding into; she’ll stare straight ahead, holding onto the cookie in its waxy bag. When you stop sliding and get the car steadied, you’ll find yourself in the middle of the intersection. The snow-covered street will be deserted, traffic lights bouncing off white. Green. Yellow. Red.

Maybe being the only car out there will have you remembering the empty school last summer—you and MW sweating your asses off in that greenhouse of a classroom for six weeks. English never was your best, but summer school? How can you ace Calculus and flunk English? “Because you can’t prove any of these answers,” you’d say to yourself and raise your hand to go to the bathroom. You loved the feeling of wandering those deserted halls, your sneaker squeaks echoing off lockers. Like a nuclear bomb had hit and somehow you were the only one who survived.

You won’t be sure about making it up that hill, the hill that winds up to a house where she’ll have to stay for another year and a half before there’s even the possibility of graduation. Her mother’ll be waiting up, no doubt about it; maybe she’ll have popped some of those pills she keeps in the junk drawer and she’ll be scrubbing the kitchen walls with a sponge. Dad’s ass’ll likely be down in the room he made for himself in the basement, ZZ Top on cassette and a can of Hamm’s. Remember one day he started going into the vegetable drawer in the fridge and offering you those cans? Liked to take you downstairs and tell you what a nice piece of ass his wife used to be. You and dad played it like regular pals for a while, didn’t you, but you don’t go in that house much anymore. Not since the afternoon dad’s talk shifted from wife to daughter. To how it seemed like only yesterday she was in diapers, and what a little lady she was growing into, and how tasty her fat ass looked in those skirts. Remember how your hand started shaking when he said that? It was your insides trying to bust out and leave the rest of you sitting in that basement. And words, they were nowhere to be found. Until finally you thought of her notebooks. Somehow that got you standing, and you told him the only thing you knew for sure in that moment. “She’s just going to keep on writing,” you said, and you walked back upstairs.

In front of you, Midland Elementary, a concrete playground and classrooms you sat in just six years ago. And that parking lot where so much has happened since: your first sip of beer, first hit off a joint, first time inside a girl. This girl. Imagine, all that preparation, that practicing yourself until you were empty, in your bedroom, in the shower, in the garage, and still you had no idea what you were in for, how real skin would feel, how warm her around you could be. And here you’ll be parked in the middle of an intersection and she’ll be a hundred miles away over there against the window. At least she’ll have that cookie in her hand. You can watch her lick the frosting off like she does, her tongue getting bluer and bluer.

Don’t even think about turning on the radio; this silence is yours to endure. It’ll give you plenty of time to think about how MW wound up failing summer school. How he never did graduate. But how still, there you are right alongside him five nights at Yellow, loading freight into trucks. Trucks your pops drove the country in before that forklift went through his thigh. Now he doesn’t leave the house much and coming home’s always the same scene: your mom in the kitchen, smoking with the windows closed, her feet in her favorite pink slippers, the plush faded and brittle with dust. When you come in, she hugs her head into your chest and says, “There he is, my knight in shining armor.” There’s something in the frying pan, always something in the frying pan, something from the cabinets always overflowing. She just keeps feeding him. You think maybe this is her plan. Maybe this is what she thinks about while she sits at the kitchen table staring off at nothing, her cigarette turning to ash. Maybe she’s trying to kill him. Your pops. If you need him he’ll be reclined in the La-Z-Boy, snoring, with the remote on his big belly and his hand on the wooden lever like maybe he was just about to get up.

Put it into gear and head for the elementary school. Go ahead and pull around back, you know the spot. “What are you doing,” she’ll say. Her lips will be blue. “You think this is funny?” The car will slip and slide in the unplowed parking lot, but keep going until you’re beneath the basketball hoop. Speak. Say, “Look, I didn’t mean it.” Say, “You caught me by surprise is all.” Say, “We can figure this out.” Move your hand to her and rest it on her stomach. Notice: nothing feels different. She’ll let you stay there a few long seconds before she says, “Spare me” and puts your hand on the seat between you.

The cookie will be in her lap, Grover’s hands missing from the ends of his skinny arms, his face smeared and smudged. It’ll start you thinking about JG and KC. Not their pasty skin and sunken eyes, not those gruesome bruises. Not even about the two of them waiting in bushes to knock over old ladies at ATMs. What you’ll be thinking about is how last time you went down to Walpole for visiting hours, someone had beaten KC so bad he’d had his jaw wired shut. With bubbly spittle glazing his chin he was trying to tell you what went down, but no matter how much he squinted and contorted his face all he could do was make sounds like wet moans.

Taking her there to that spot beneath the basketball hoop is how you’ll be trying to say things you don’t have words for. Words will be there somewhere for you to use, but everything you’ll search will turn up language you won’t understand. Numbers on the dash, letters on the heater, all those initials above you. You’ll look and look trying for a hint of how to form language to give her, but it will all have become nothing more than lines, curved and straight, in patterns you won’t remember, hieroglyphics you won’t be able to decipher. Turn the car off. Over the low roof of the school behind you, across the street, in the rearview, you’ll see Santa smiling at you from atop the exterminator’s.

She won’t look at you; she’ll keep picking and picking at Grover, his legs and arms turning to crumbs in her lap. Reach for the cookie. You’ll get a finger on it but she’ll yank back. “Fuck off,” she’ll say. Then all at once she’ll bite off a chunk. Grover’s head. She’ll chew with her mouth open and put the cookie right in your face. “Here,” she’ll say. She’ll almost be yelling. “Go ahead.” When you don’t move, she’ll let out a breathy sigh and pull away. She’ll tilt her head back and stare up at the roof. You’ll look at her eyes for everything you want to say, but by then her eyes will be closed.

And you’ll know so much in that moment, too much. You’ll see it: driving her to that place in Main South with the old guy out front shouting Psalms; sitting in a pea-green waiting room pretending to read Sports Illustrated; pulling over at the curb in front of her house, a hug but no kiss, and watching until she gets inside. Knowing that’s the last time she’ll be in your car; knowing you’ll leave this place soon, and that this whole thing is what it took to get you gone. Forget all that, some future you think you see. For now, she’s your girl, and she’s so far away over there.

Take the cookie from her. Set it on the seat between you and place your hand on her knee. She’ll brush you off once, and again with a little less, but keep on. Move your hand beneath her skirt. She’ll say, “Cut it out” but won’t make a move to stop you. Feel the warmth of her more and more up her thigh. Move your fingers over soft cotton and feel the bristly hairs beneath. She’ll say, “We can’t” as she reaches down and pulls her underwear aside. She’ll say, “This is what got us here in the first place” as she moves her legs apart. You’ll be trying to tell her: that night of all the nights we parked here in this very spot, I do not regret.

It’s now she’ll let you lean in and kiss those blue lips. Your mouth on hers, this will be how you’re hoping words that are somewhere inside you spill into her, and when she feels them land in her belly she’ll know you’re trying to say: remember us that night how we laid back across the front seat and sweated our naked bodies together under an itchy blanket, and how we looked up at our initials of all the initials etched into the foam roof, and how those letters that added up to us, they were constellations in a maroon sky.

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