I Just Can’t, with This Heat
All the small things: I can’t make rent. Landlord’s going to evict my ass. I’ve been fired from every dead-end job because maybe I won’t kneel down to lick people’s assholes. The new guy’s gone and ditched me. My friends who aren’t friends use me for drugs or sex or rides to the grocery to pick up kitty litter. I just need to back this shit up. I mean, how in the hell did I get here?
Whenever I say this to the old new guy, he says, You got here, one step following the next. I tell him to fuck off and then ask for his advice. He says he’s not in any position to give people—especially women—life advice but says maybe it’d be good if I don’t take another bad step. I say, That’s really fucking helpful, man, and then down two Jägers.
Summers in Houston are hot, hot, hot, especially when you live in a place with no air-conditioning or work in a shithole without fans, which I do, for now, until I get fired, which I will. Old new guy stops by my Tempstay after his bar shift. When we fuck, he yells horrible hateful slurs and I ask him to slap me, and he does until I say stop, stop, stop. Lying there, pain rushing through my body, I wonder if it’s some specific woman he hates or if it’s women in general, and then I wonder what it means about me, that violent sex is the only kind I can feel.
It’s fall and our mutual friend has OD’d, which doesn’t surprise me. I get a job taking care of people who can’t take care of themselves, who hire people who can’t take care of themselves. This is my first right step, I tell old new guy, and he says, Yeah, but maybe don’t call people retarded. I say, That’s really helpful, man, then down two Jägers, snatch his keys from the bar, and bolt.
It’s never a good idea to drive, especially if you’re me. I wish I could tell you I can control all this shit but I can’t. My body is a car speeding down the highway. Who’s driving this thing? Weaving in and out of traffic, barely dodging the bumpers. It’s on empty, engine running hard. Swerving in front of a Mack Truck, it crashes over the cement divide. My body hits three cars in the other lane, one with kids. My body hisses, leaks in the hot Texas sun.
Mother moves to her bedroom to the laundry room to the kitchen to the loveseat, then over and back again in bright purple loops.
She blurs by my bedroom door. What a wonder she is as she undresses and dresses the house. She strips the kitchen of all its rags and rugs and curtains and tablecloths and pulls new fabrics from old cupboards. Drapes everything over and around and above. Perfumes the place with lavender and pine and then everything feels possible again.
I hear Mother cry from the living room; her cries are a chair dragged across a wooden floor. Mother waters the hanging ivy from a can that glugs and gasps. On the tabletop is a chess set, a straight wrench, and a to be sharpened sticky note stuck on the knives. Mother will leave with the knives. It is what she calls an errand.
Mother is painterly with her hours—moving in circles, stopping for detail, shading. The murmuring of the world doesn’t faze her. It’s backdrop, white space. People breeze by. They talk and walk, never knowing that Mother and I exist in this space.
Mother undresses, then dresses her body. She is silver, sassy in a slippery, opaque moon dress. When she walks out into the hot air her garment is marbled seaweed or a woman’s hair at the bottom of a bog. Alone, Mother is tonal. Mountain. Rupture. Landscape. A glittering earworm of song. A barnacle with cavities of heartbreak.
Hours go by, maybe days, and I remain unfed and uneducated on how the light works. I hope she returns from her errand, though I am unsure. I am unsure because what if something tears? What if she unravels?
Mother finds her way back in one piece. She slips out of the silver and pulls on her overalls as if she’s given up on something but I don’t care. She is home. She wipes the rouge from her cheeks, then stops. Sees me in the mirror.
Mother fixes the drainpipe with her straight wrench. The chess set is packed and the linens turned down. To the knives, Mother whispers clever longings. Ladies, she says, why be dull?
She carries my kale, my six pack of sours, the cheapo one-off fruits, carries it all to my car, this stranger—her.
“Oh my lord,” I say. “What happened to your back?”
She has a cast-like contraption around her middle. She’s wrapped up, held down, bound. She might as well have been gagged.
“This?” she says. “Back brace. We all wear them. For support.”
“What happens when you take it off?” Would she fall apart?
Arranging the bags just-so in the trunk, she looks over her shoulder. Looks down one street, then the other. “Come here,” she says, crawling inside the trunk.
There, among the fruits and vegetables, we sit together. Opening a sour beer with her lighter, she offers it to me. I sip and she sips. Cars whizz by. And I love her. Or, if not her, I love how she lifts and arranges, shines despite possible pain.
“See?” she says, unlatching the brace and taking my hand, placing my hand under her shirt, cupping it to her breast. Her skin flickers. Flutters.
“See?” she says. I wait for her to say it a third time—for luck—but, alas.
Alissa Hattman’s work has appeared in The Rumpus, Gravel, Propeller, and Prick of the Spindle, and her short story, “Beyond the Bay,” won Work’s fiction of the year contest in 2011. In 2009, she received her MFA in Fiction at Pacific University and, in 2011, she completed a MA in English Literature from Portland State University. Alissa has studied at Charles University in Prague and has been an artist-in-residence at Gullkistan Center for Creativity in Laugarvatn, Iceland. She teaches writing at Chemeketa Community College in Salem, Oregon.