When Every Part of You Breaks
originally published September 1, 2004 in Carve Magazine.
I let Gary hold my hand because he wants to so much. Love is one reason. That I might fall on this bumpy trail is another, though it wouldn’t matter if I did. A lot of me’s already broken. Gary doesn’t see that. He sees a whole person who just gets a little wobbly sometimes. So when I can’t make the rent he covers me. And when I cry over Ellen he pulls me close without asking her name. It’s in his blood to take care of things, like it’s in mine to mess them up. This I know, after only a month.
He stops walking and kisses me.
“Quit it,” I say, and he kisses me again.
We look at the blue winter sky. A winter sky is never blue in Pittsburgh. Here it’s never gray. That and the altitude, and the sense of compressed distance, everything being in one place all at once is a huge change. For the better I’m sure. I’m just not used to it yet. I might never be used to it.
Gary turns from the sky to me. “You ready to move on?”
My toe catches a tree root and I go down hard. Gary’s got me under one arm, hauling me back up. Like always, my tears are sudden.
“Hey. Hey, now. Just a little bump you didn’t see coming,” he says.
You’re supposed to see things coming. Trouble is, I never do.
I first saw Gary the day before New Year’s at the bus station back in Pittsburgh. I’d been sitting on the bench for about five hours trying to figure out where to go. By the time he sat down I’d passed up Miami, Chicago, Boston and Montreal.
When he asked where I was headed I shrugged. He said he was bound for Denver, then up to Boulder where the university was.
“College boy,” I said.
He said he tried it for a year and didn’t like it, that his dad had wanted him to go, but was okay with his quitting. His dad was a pretty cool guy, he said, his best friend really, and it sucked when he went in the nursing home. And the thing of it was he didn’t even need to. They were doing fine.
“But he wouldn’t have it,” Gary said. “He says, ‘Son, twenty-three’s too young to spend your time with an old cripple.’“
“What happened to him?” I asked.
“He went off a scaffold years ago, putting up that big tower on Fourth. Broke his back. He healed up pretty well, but not all the way. There’s a lot he can’t do for himself.”
“What about your mom?”
“Took off right after my dad got hurt. No good at taking care of anyone else.”
“I bet you were, though.”
“Guess I had to be.”
At 9:30 that night the bus to Denver was loading and I bought a ticket on it.
“You sure you want to do this?” he said.
I was. He was pretty damn cute. Tall, built, with thick blond hair you could get lost in. And I liked the easy way he talked, as if he’d known me a long time.
“I’m Allison, by the way,” I said.
He shook my hand. “I’m Gary.”
A little after the bus pulled out he went to sleep. I didn’t, which was funny since this was the first night since Ellen’s accident that my mother wouldn’t wake me up. One o’clock, two-fifteen, four-thirty in the morning there’d she be at the end of my bed with her rosary and Ellen’s picture, the same one I had, of her in a green dress at the Italian restaurant Billy took her to on their first date. At first I pretended to be asleep so she’d go away. She never went away. Then I turned on the light so she wouldn’t trip over my shoes. She’d beg the Virgin to let Ellen recover and to watch over my dad in jail. Night after night. One big rerun. That’s why I was on a bus with a guy I didn’t know, going somewhere I’d never been.
In the morning we held hands across Nebraska. The land turned grassy and dry, and was totally depressing to look at. Then as the road climbed onto the Colorado plateau, I realized it was better to look up. That’s when you saw the sky, how wide it was and how near.
The trailer we rent comes furnished. The sofa is about forty years old and has stuffing coming out of one arm, like fluffy puss. The stove has only three burners, and the sink has a brown stain I can’t scrub out. On the table sits a china salt and pepper shaker, a cowboy and a cowgirl. He tips his hat while she swings her skirt. I grow to love those two. Shopping lists, receipts, and spare dollar bills are all kept under their shiny black feet. Ellen’s picture ends up there when Gary does the laundry and it falls from the pocket of my blue jeans afterwards.
“Bet it’s your sister. Same nose, same mouth,” he says.
“She’s prettier, though.”
“Only if you like redheads.”
Funny how her hair stayed bright, even after all that time. Her face was different. In the beginning it looked asleep, but after six months, when I went in to say good-bye on my way to the bus station, it looked fake. She was smaller, too. They said she’d shrink from her muscles not getting used. They knew all about what would happen to her, like her eyelids fluttering, and the bend in her hands from holding empty space. Like the hands of an old woman. Twenty-four going on eighty.
“Why are you crying?” Gary asks.
I tell him she left home and I haven’t talked to her for a while. Gary says I should give her a call, and I say I don’t know where to reach her. I stare at her faded, crumpled face and wonder if I wanted the picture to get wrecked or just didn’t think about it. I wonder if maybe it’s the same thing.
On Valentine’s Day Gary gives me a ring, a little opal set in a plain gold band. We’re drinking beer with Gina and Ray, the couple we met our first day in the trailer park. Everyone stops talking while I open the box. Inside the opal’s creamy surface are flecks of red, green, gold, and blue. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.
“Thank you,” I say. “You shouldn’t have. It must have been expensive.”
“Bad move, man. Always say you broke the bank,” Ray says. He’s smiling. He’s always smiling. He’s as sweet and empty as air. He and Gary go into the kitchen for more beer. They work together building roof trusses at a place on the other side of town, and have become pretty good friends.
Gina and I are not good friends, though we pretend to be, maybe for their sake, or because she got me my maid job at the motel and I should be grateful.
“Ooh, let me see!” she says and grabs the box out of my hand. She plucks the ring from its case. “Here, put it on.”
“I can’t wear it at work with all that soap,” I say.
“Sure, you can.”
“Don’t you have to be really careful with opals?”
“Fuck if I know.”
Her breath is beery and hot. She’s drunk. So am I. It feels like floating, then like sinking, only sideways, in a spiral. Gina puts the ring away, and we all have another round.
Later Ray drops his pants to show us a tattoo on his ass that says This End Up. Gina laughs so hard she blows beer out her nose. I can’t tell which is weirder, Ray’s ass, or Gina’s nose.
“Oh, God, I’m going to feel like shit tomorrow,” says Gina when she stops laughing.
“Tomorrow’s Ellen’s birthday,” I say.
“Who’s Ellen?” Ray asks.
“Someone I killed.”
Since their faces don’t change the words were only in my head.
I feel sick. I go into the bedroom. The bed is built into the wall, like on a ship. The moon glows through the bare window, because the landlord never replaced the curtains the tenant before us tore down when her boyfriend got killed in a knife fight.
I, too, have broken things.
After Ellen was in Intensive Care a while I tossed my lamp to the floor, slammed the medicine cabinet hard enough to crack the mirror, and pitched her favorite glass at the wall. The glass was old and scratched and had yellow balloons on it. My dad got it at a gas station when she was about nine, one of those free gifts when you buy ten gallons or more. I set it by her hospital bed, and in the beginning dropped a new white rose in it every week. After a while I couldn’t stand the tube stuck in her mouth, or the machine that shoved her air in and out, so the last rose turned brown and my mother brought the glass home.
Gary asks if there’s anything I need.
“They’ll be gone soon.”
He closes the door behind him. When I wake at dawn he’s snoring beside me. The room fills with a dull smooth light. I know that light well.
I get up, go in the living room, and look out. It’s deep and getting deeper. Boundaries soften, then disappear. All becomes white. On the hill across the street is a single tree lifting its bony hands to Heaven. Beyond the tree lie a thousand miles of prairie. My old teacher, Sister Clementine, called it a sea full of peril and loss for the pioneers that crossed it ten miles a day, where they left their dead, said their prayers, and moved on.
Gary’s beside me, pulling my hands gently from my face. He takes me back to bed, tucks the blanket under my chin, and gets in on his side.
“Do you think I’m a good person?” I ask.
“Would I love you if you weren’t?”
“What’s good about me?”
“I don’t know. Maybe how much you feel everything.”
“That’s not good,” I say, but he doesn’t really hear. In fact he’s already back asleep.
Gina says I need to cheer up, so she brings me to the Dusty Boot after work. She likes this bar, because she doesn’t get carded too often. She won’t be twenty-one for another few months, and even though I’m almost twenty-two I’m the one the bartender asks for I.D. We order two beers. Gina’s already drawing a few glances from the guys in the booth by the door. Gina’s very pretty. She’s got black hair, white skin, and big boobs. She dresses well, too. Silk sweaters, suede pants. I wondered how she could afford clothes like that, until she said she steals most of her stuff. She’s been shoplifting for years, I guess. And Ray doesn’t know anything about it. He must figure she’s really good at spotting sales.
“So,” she says.
“You miss home?”
“Not really,” I say. “You?”
Gina’s from Washington State, a place I’d never live, on account of the rain. If Colorado doesn’t work out I’d go south, to Arizona maybe, and let the sun burn me to the bone.
I’ve never been in here before, and take a minute to check it out. On a shelf above the bar are pair after pair of old cowboy boots. One pair is purple. I stare at them, then ask the bartender if I can take a closer look. He takes them down and hands them over.
“What are you doing?” Gina asks.
I kick off my track shoes and put on the boots. They’re tight across the instep, but otherwise they fit fine. On each one there’s fancy red stitching that spells “Ruby.” How did Ruby’s custom made boots end up here?
“You look ridiculous,” Gina says. I’ve got my blue jeans shoved up over my knees now, so I can really see the boots. I’m feeling good. The beer hit me hard because I haven’t eaten since breakfast.
“They’re you,” the bartender says. He’s young and blond. Like Gary, only not as cute.
The music slides from disco to country. I stand and tap the heavy square heels on the old wood floor. People stare. Gina rolls her eyes and drinks her beer. I scoot and stamp, turning slowly, hands on my hips. I’m scared, even though I did this before, at a Country and Western bar with Ellen and Billy. We got a lesson in line dancing, and Billy said I did fine. Then Ellen quit, because she said I sucked. I still suck.
Sorry Ruby, I think and sit back down. Sorry I can’t do right by your boots.
“Finally,” Gina says.
“You were on to something out there,” the bartender says. “And that old boy was going to join you.”
He means a heavy set guy at the end of the bar with a mustache and fake pearl buttons on his denim shirt. The guy raises his beer in greeting. I turn away. When I glance back he’s still smiling at me. In the mirror over the bar I see the pink in my face, and the light in my honey hair. Some people think I’m pretty. I’m not. Ellen was the pretty one.
“Those boots did nothing for you,” Gina says. “Ankle boots, that’s what you want. And a skirt once in a while. Why don’t you go shopping with me sometime? It’ll make you feel better.”
“And get busted? No thanks.”
She tosses her hair.
“Oh, Allison. You worry too much! Haven’t I told you I never get caught?”
I give the boots back to the bartender. Gina sees someone she knows from the trailer park. She wants to go talk to him for a minute. She leaves her coat on the bar stool, but takes her beer and cigarettes. His face lights up when Gina gets near, and I hope she can see what’s on his mind. Even if she doesn’t right away, she’ll say she did. Gina would never admit that she was anything but smart.
Ellen thought she was smart, too. She figured my dad didn’t know she was out with Billy that night because she said she was going to the mall. Only Ellen never went to the mall. She could have come up with something better, but she was in too much of a hurry. Billy must have called her at the last minute. My dad was mad as hell. He’d told her about thirty times not to see him. He had a major problem with Billy, and it wasn’t because he was on parole, either. My dad even said a guy can make a mistake and still be a decent person. My own theory was that my dad hated Billy because Ellen really liked him. It was just something between them, Ellen and my dad.
After Ellen left that night my dad sat and stewed for a while, then he said it was time to put an end to it. He knew they were in a bar, and he knew what part of town, so it was only a matter of time until he found them. He and Ellen would fight, my mother would call Father O’Malley, and I’d wish I could do something. Anything.
So I went to the bar. I knew which one it was. Ellen was drinking a beer – her fourth, judging from the bottles on her side of the table, and Billy had gone out to use the cash machine.
“Oh, shit,” was all she said when I told her about my dad. She took her purse and got up. She told the waitress to tell Billy she had to go, and that she’d call him later. She talked slow and careful, and I realized she was drunk, though not nearly as drunk as I’d seen her, like the night she got pulled over and my dad had to go get her at the station.
“Let me drive,” I said when we were outside.
I reached for the keys in her hand, and she jerked away like a little kid protecting a toy.
“They catch you again, you lose your license.”
“Oh, get over yourself, Ally. And while you’re at it, get a life.”
I didn’t try to keep her from getting in the car. She drove fine. They say you can do that if you’ve had enough practice, though since she hit the tree head on I guess she needed another try. I went the long way for some time alone, and I remember thinking it was funny that she wasn’t home yet. My parents were sitting on the porch. Turns out my mother talked my dad into staying, that he never went after Ellen at all.
Gina returns to the bar.
“Oh, my God,” she says. Her face is red. “He asked me out. I can’t believe it.” She looks happy.
“What about Ray?”
“I know.” She tries to look serious, like someone who’d never cheat on her boyfriend, but I bet she’s hatching some elaborate plan to see this guy and keep Ray from finding out. Deep down Gina’s not exactly interested in doing the right thing. That’s bad, I know, but maybe no worse than trying to do the right thing and fucking it up.
Gary gets the flu. I bring him chicken soup, and lift the spoon to his mouth. Then I press a paper napkin to his lips and fluff his pillow.
“You’re nice,” he says.
“No, I’m not. I just want you to feel better.”
I kiss his hot forehead, and tell him to get some sleep.
I walk out to the mailboxes at the other end of the park. Gina pulls up next to me in her car. She says she’s on her way to the Dusty Boot, as if I couldn’t guess, from how dressed up she is. She asks me to come, too, and I say Gary’s home sick.
“He’d wouldn’t want you to be stuck inside all day,” she says.
“Shit, he won’t even miss you! Come on.”
“I want to be there when he wakes up.”
She goes on her way, checking her makeup in the rear view mirror. When I pass her trailer I see Ray in there, watching T.V. I wonder what bullshit Gina told him about where she was going.
The only mail is a thin gray envelope addressed to me. I already know who it’s from. I think I’ll throw it away without reading it, though by the time I’m through the door I know I’ll read it and keep it, too.
“Little Ally. Your dad’s doing fine. Jail’s okay. Except when I get to thinking on things, like I am tonight. That jerk Billy came down here last visiting day to say he forgave me. Isn’t that something, him forgiving me? After filling her up with liquor that way. And letting her drive. One good beating isn’t enough for the likes of him, and I’d do it again, God help me.”
One witness said Billy didn’t even fight back, just let my dad come at him over and over. Billy had been at the house every day before then to sit with his head in his hands. ut on that day, when the doctor said Ellen wouldn’t recover, my dad found him on his own front porch, drinking a beer, as if he already knew.
“You’re in my prayers every night, dear Ally. God bless you, and help your mother any way you can.”
My mother didn’t need help. She needed Ellen’s brain stem to heal. Before last summer my mother didn’t know what a brain stem was. Neither did I. They showed us on the X-Ray, a flat white oval at the bottom of the skull that controls everything. The doctor said there was nothing to do but decide when enough was enough.
The law in this state makes it the family’s right to terminate,” he said.
“It’s against God’s will,” my mother said.
“I cannot advise you in this matter.”
I fold up the letter very carefully and put it in my jewelry box with Ellen’s picture. I don’t look at the picture, because I can’t do it anymore. I can’t be in two places at once, with my heart moving forward and falling back until every part of me breaks. Every part but the one Gary keeps whole.
That night we lie in bed, waiting for sleep. Gary feels better. His eyes are open in the moonlight.
“Listen,” I say. “Remember how I said my sister was gone, and that I never heard from her?”
“She was in a car accident last August. She’s in a coma and won’t ever wake up.” How simple it sounds, and with so few words. What’s not simple is the rest of it, my good intentions and letting her drive herself home.
“Oh, Babe. It’s not your fault,” Gary says.
“Of course it is.”
He turns towards me, and rises up on one elbow. “You just said she’d gotten caught before! And you even reminded her.”
“So, she’d have messed herself up sooner or later, whether you were there or not.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Yes, I do. And you do too, really, if you’d only give yourself a chance.”I
I let him take me in his arms. Then I hear his good heart beating.
The wind comes out of the mountains with the force of Hell breaking loose. The Chinook, they call it. Blows for no reason at all from the high country on down.
Gary and I make love all morning while the wind screams.
“You’re my little darling,” he whispers. “Do you know that?”
“Yes. God, yes.”
Later I make him soup and a bologna sandwich for lunch.
“I’m on to you, girl,” he says.
“Quit it.” I’m blushing.
“You got quite a thing for a certain guy I know.”
“Oh, go watch your game. And ask Ray if he needs popcorn. I’ll bring it down.” What starts as a quick kiss good-bye turns into one that lasts for about ten minutes.
Gina shows up half an hour later while I’m washing the dishes. I’m not glad to see her, and ask cheerfully if the guys kicked her out. She says she hasn’t been home since breakfast. She takes off her coat. She’s wearing a gold necklace. It’s thick and heavy.
“Where did you get that?” I say.
“The jewelry store, of course.” She winks.
“Let me guess. It just stuck to your hand.”
“Not this time. Justin bought it for me.”
“You remember. From the Dusty Boot.”
I look out the front window. Two girls walk down the sidewalk holding on to each other and laughing against the wind. They stagger and lurch, their faces full of joy. I sprinkle cleanser in the sink and rub it a circle. Gina stands a few feet away, watching me. Then she helps herself to the couch and says, “I know what you’re going to say, so don’t.”
In the sheltered space between our trailer and the neighbor’s an empty bag spins around and around until the wind pushes it free. If even Gina sees it, it must be true. I guess I still think you have to try to do the right thing, even if you screw up sometimes.
“Someone’s going to get hurt,” I say.
“No one’s going to find out.”
“Yes they will. You’re not as smart as you think.”
A trash can lid bounces down the sidewalk and slams into the chain link fence. Another gust rocks the trailer. She doesn’t even look up, like things getting banged around is the most normal thing in the world.
“You know, Allison, the funny thing, I mean the real joke here is that you’re the last person who should give advice about anything.”
“Really? Why’s that?”
She lights a cigarette. Her hands are steady, and her jaw is square and hard, just like Ellen’s when I wouldn’t lend her money, or my good sweater, stuff she took anyway unless I hid them.
“You know. You and that big tragedy you drag around. Gary told Ray you cry a lot. Frankly, I don’t know how the hell he stands it.”
“You better shut up about Gary.”
“What if I don’t want to?”
The can of cleanser sails through space, hits the fake wood paneling on the wall behind her, and drops white powder on her coat. She looks at me with narrow eyes. She picks up her coat, brushes it off and goes, leaving the door open to swing back and forth in the wild wind, until I pull it shut.
Now I’m in only one place, here in mountains above Flagstaff. It’s been two years. We live in a small rental house near the college. Gary’s dad moved in last fall. He didn’t ask to, of course. We offered. We figured the Arizona climate would do him good. He gets around okay on his walker. I drive him to physical therapy three days a week. I’m looking for someone who will come to the house instead, not for my sake, but because I think he’d be more comfortable not having to go to an office across town.
Gary works for the maintenance department on campus. I wait tables at Denny’s. My dad served his sentence and went home. He plays solitaire and watches game shows. Every couple of weeks I get a collect call from my mother. She still has a tough time once in a while, though she decided the other day to turn Ellen’s room into a sewing nook.
Ray stays in touch with Gary long distance. He broke up with Gina when he found out about Justin, and got a new girlfriend named Sally. They stopped by on their way to the Grand Canyon. He’s a supervisor at the truss shop now, and wants to get his G.E.D. He’s still pretty much lost in space. So’s Sally, from what I can see. She’s plump, giggles, and has a soft dreamy way of looking at things as if she might remember them, and then again might not.
I remember everything.
Especially the morning after I threw the cleanser at Gina, when I called my mother and said it was time to let Ellen go.
“Oh, Ally. It flies in the face of God,” she said.
“No, listen. We have to do this. You know we do.”
“Then I’ll go to the jail and get Dad to sign the paper.”
“Mother of God.”
She was silent until I said, “Hello?”
“You’re coming then,” she said.
“Yes. But not to stay.”
Gary found me packing.
“Did your sister die?” he asked.
I told him I wanted to terminate the life support, and that my mother would probably agree once I got there.
“It’s a hell of a hard thing to come to,” he said.
“It’s the only thing. Has been all along.”
I had to lie down. He lay down with me. We didn’t talk. The sunlight cut across the room in steeper angles as the world turned towards night. I fell asleep for a little while. When I woke up Gary was putting clothes in his pack.
“I called my dad. Let him know we’ll be in town,” he said. “Told my boss, too. Said my dad was sick, and he gave me a week.”
“I already told mine I quit.”
When we got back I’d find something better, something I liked.
I reached up to the shelf over the bed where my ring still sat in its blue velvet box. I slipped it on my finger.
“Mineral oil keeps it smooth,” I said. “My mother had an opal pin, and she used to dab it with a cotton ball. It’s weird I didn’t think of that before.”
Riding east the sky pulled down over greener country and things I’d forgotten came back, like how Ellen tapped her teeth with her fingernail if she didn’t understand something, or when she let my mother’s canary out and it flew around the house, hit the window, and broke its neck. She held it in her hands and cried. Then we sent it down the stream behind our house in a shoe box with a tiny gold cross from her First Communion taped to the lid.
Ellen looked like a rumpled rag doll in her hospital bed. She was even smaller. Father O’Malley came. His hair had been silver last summer. Now it was white. And my mother’s blue eyes, once full of rage and grief, were wide and flat, like a sick child’s.
“We’re committing a mortal sin,” she whispered, her arms around me all of a sudden so hard I could only whisper back, “The sin is in denying her safe passage.”
I don’t know where those words came from.
My mother signed a piece of paper the doctor gave her. Then the Father performed the last rites. I went into the hall while my mother said good-bye. Gary sat on a bench eating Oreos he got from a vending machine down the hall. He offered me one, and I shook my head.
Then I had my turn with her alone. I sat by the bed.
“Time to move on now,” I said.
I touched her cheek as they took the tube out and turned off the respirator. She didn’t even draw one breath on her own. All I could think was how well she’d rest.
For a long time afterwards Gary had to hold me every night before I could sleep. I find that as time passes it all becomes less important.
Except when I dream.