I’m lying somewhere, uncomfortable. In our bed? It feels like I’m going to be waking up with a headache. My leg is stiff and aching. I don’t know what’s wrong with it but I’m not going to move it. I’m going to go back to sleep. It will be okay by the time the alarm goes off. I try to drift off but there is a sound, a slow scraping, a grating squeaking like metal on porcelain. Damn. I know what it is. Dan is scraping black crumb coated butter off of a knife onto the edge of the butter dish. For the three years we’ve been married it’s been one of the top five most annoying things about him. There are always nasty black smears on the side of the butter dish. God, how many times is he going to scrape it? The damn thing has to be clean by now. I want to drift off again but he just keeps scraping and scraping. I drift back to a morning in our first apartment.
Dan was buttering his toast while I cringed with each rasping scrape. I hadn’t slept well and my period was starting, which wasn’t helping my mood but God! I knew even with his back turned what I was going to find in that butter dish. There would be excess butter mixed with blackened toast crumbs smeared on the edge of the butter dish. The surface of the butter would be littered with blackened crumbs like the fallout from Mount St. Helens.
I couldn’t take it anymore. “Why don’t you wipe the damn crumbs off of a paper towel for Christ’s sake? It’s disgusting.”
Dan turned halfway around and cocked his head at me. His red striped tie dangled and he looked at me like I was simple. Then he chuckled and turned his back on me. “Shit Emily, take it easy. It’s just a few crumbs. It isn’t going to kill you.” He took his toast and sat at the table, leaving his mess behind.
No, it won’t Dan, but it might kill you.
And now while I’m trying to sleep he’s doing it again. “Dan, please stop it. I have a headache.” He’s slowed but he won’t stop scraping the damn knife. I open my eyes and blink. I’m going to kill him.
But I’m not in our bed. I’m lying under a sky full of stars. There is still that scraping squeaking sound. It isn’t a butter knife. It’s slowing. Maybe it will stop. My left leg is throbbing. My head aches and I reach up to touch it. I wince and jerk my hand away and my fingertips are sticky and wet when I rub them against my thumb. The starlight hurts my head and I close my eyes. It’s so quiet, only that squeak every few seconds. I wonder why I am out here.
Then I hear Dan moan, a small sound like he makes in his sleep. I open my eyes and lift my head and look toward the sound. “Dan? Dan, where are you?” He moans again. I have to get up. I have to find him.
I try to roll myself over but my leg sings out in burning pain. I gasp and fall back. I am dripping with sweat. I take deep breaths and steel myself to try again. I get myself turned over. I stand up and my leg is pulsing, a hammer beat on bare bone. The effort to get myself upright brings on a wave of nausea and I wretch and almost fall over. Then I realize I’ll have to sit down, because my leg won’t support me. I’m dizzy and my vision is blurring in and out. I sit down hard and pain stabs at my leg. I’m whimpering and panting but I immediately feel better just sitting down. I look down at my leg. There is a wet gash torn into my thigh through my jeans. Below my knee it is twisted and wrong. I look away. I close my eyes.
Dan is calling, moaning. “Help. Help me.”
If I hold my leg rigid and drag it behind me I can pull myself along with my hands and use my right leg to push. The nausea is powerful but it’s settled in and bearable. I am making my way to Dan. I think that I can make out his outline ahead. We are in a huge field of recently cut hay. The bales are all gone but the dry jagged stubble remains, and the air is thick with its wet clean scent. I drag myself closer to Dan and he begins muttering in that condescending tone, “Aw, Em. That’s not how it’s done. What are you thinking?” That fucking tone. Just like another night so much like this one.
Dan was driving. I was sitting tight lipped next to him. I wasn’t going to speak to him, not one word. Then the lid blew off. “You think I’m stupid don’t you?”
“What the hell are you talking about, Em?”
“You think I’m stupid. The way you condescend to me Dan, the way you pat me on the back like a dog and interrupt me, correct me.
“Wait a minute . . .”
“Back there in front of all your little buddies from work. You don’t even realize it do you? I think that makes it worse, that you do it all the time and you don’t even realize it.”
“You know what Emily? I am so sick of your shit. I wasn’t condescending to you. I was fucking telling you that’s not how it’s said. I’m trying to be supportive when I pat you on the back. What the fuck would you like me to do?”
“Oh bullshit. You are so full of shit! Supportive? No Dan, that’s not what you were trying to be. You were treating me like some retarded little child and showing your friends how fucking smart you are and how sensitive and how put upon you are. By me, your dipshit English major wife with her oh so precious and oh so worthless music theory minor.”
“I have never said that. . .”
“You don’t have to say it!”
There was silence for a full minute. Then Dan said, “Em, you’re being immature and irrational about this. I’m not going to have this conversation with you right now.”
“Right Dan. You never want to have any conversation.” I turned to my window and muttered, “Why I wanted to have a child with you. . .”
When I get to Dan his eyes jolt open and he moans. “Em? I’m scared Em.” He jerks his head in a series of spastic little nods. He is pressed into the ground and reminds me of a roadrunner cartoon. I almost chuckle. His arms rest as if he were reclining on our bed except that his right arm is held at an odd and ridiculous angle by a thick tube of hay stubble. My arms are stabbed and scraped from dragging myself through the field. My vision is fuzzy at the edges. Sweat stings the gash in my thigh. I lean on my elbow and look at him. He looks pale and faint in the starlight. He needs a hospital. I reach into my pants’ pocket for my cell phone and pull out jagged pieces of it which scatter out onto the ground.
I look into Dan’s face and lie. “You’ll be alright Dan.” I point down to his body with a glance, “It’s not so bad.”
I look up at the sky and think, This shouldn’t be happening to us. This happens to other people. This is a story, a fiction in the night. Under these billion blinking stars.
I see our car. It is a dimpled hump, an alien growth out on the skin of the field. The back tire rocks a few times then stops. The squeaking stopped without my noticing.
We were happy. We were laughing. The radio was loud but we weren’t listening.
We were coming back home from his parents place. I was driving. Dan’s mother had cried when he told her that it was official, after the rituals, positions and couplings at odd times when my body was most ripe - I was finally pregnant. Her sobbing seemed over done and ridiculous at first, but I started crying too. Dan and his dad had laughed at us and then she and I were laughing through tears.
“Em? I’m scared. Will you sing for me?”
“Don’t be scared,” I say. I shift on my elbow and scoot closer to him. My face is near his. His features blur, and then settle. I rest my twisted leg on top of my good one. I’m getting used to the constant throb, but the nausea is almost unbearable. I want to sleep.
“Dan, I can’t think of a song,” and it’s true, but then the stupid lyrics from Michigan State’s fight song pop into my head.
On the banks of the Red Cedar, There's a school that's known to all; Its specialty is winning, And those Spartans play good ball;
We met at Michigan State. I sang a solo in the musical theater’s production of Les Miserables. Afterward Dan had come up to me and stepped so close I could smell cinnamon Dentyne and cheap cologne. He said, “That was so, so, beautiful. You transported me.” It was one of the top ten cheesiest lines ever. I said thanks and got away from him as fast as I could. I hadn’t realized how cute he was until the next time I saw him.
I hear the car’s engine ticking, it slows and then stops. I think I did sleep for a moment. The top of the car is compacted and it rests leaning toward the front passenger side.
Like a picture on the channel 11 news. Tragic. Those poor people. Except we are those poor people. That is our car.
It was the first one we’d bought from a car dealer, a 2001 Grand Am. Dan said it would be good luck for us because it was yellow, his favorite color. Only later did we look up the Bluebook value and find out we’d paid too much for it. Dan said that was alright because that car had serious get up and go. You never had to worry about finding a gap in traffic to pull out into or passing a slower vehicle on the two lane highway. It also got about twelve miles to the gallon the way he drove it. He got three speeding tickets in the first year.
I hear Dan’s breathing in the silence, short and sharp. Inside my head is grating glass and I don’t want to think. Dan’s eyes are closed and he doesn’t look scared now. He looks like a petulant child, just finished with a tantrum, realizing he won’t have his way.
On our first date Dan argued with the waitress, asking her who the hell would put mayo on a hamburger. He pointed his finger in the air, said it was a travesty, an insult to the cow that gave its life to feed us. She told him that’s how they’d always made the Royal Burger. He said it was an unholy act against nature, and that they ought to be reported to the A.S.P.C.A. for defiling this cow. She grabbed a menu from the table across the aisle and read for him the list of items on the burger, emphasizing mayo. She closed the menu as if it was the authority and all discussion of the matter was closed. He held the plate up to her and turned his head away, nose turned high. She carried his royal burger away in silence. I was a little amused until I realized that this wasn’t just a show for me. He was serious. I was embarrassed for him. Maybe I should have run right then.
I place my hand on his arm where it lays on the crusted dirt. His skin feels cold and I think that this is a bad sign when it’s still so hot out here. Sweat is trickling down my back, sliming my hair, soaking my crotch.
I hear a dog barking somewhere far off. I close my eyes and picture a farmyard and a house, a red barn across the yard. The dog is tied to the porch and is barking at a raccoon in the grove of trees lining the yard. The farmer who lives there would help me. He’d pull the car back to the road and we would go home. He’d have rough and swollen hands.
We hadn’t left for home until dark. I was giddy. I was driving and had wanted to take our time, take the back roads. I didn’t care if we ever got home. I wanted to stay in this place of possibility. We had talked non-stop for two hours about all our plans: the neighborhood we’d live in, how we would decorate the baby’s room, what we’d name it. But then we’d started arguing over names and finally we faded into uneasy silence. While I drove, I thought of how I’d dreamed of having children since I was ten years old, dreamed of meeting the perfect man. I thought of all he times Dan had rolled off of me, flipped the sheet off, and grabbed a towel from the floor to wipe himself off.
I’d say, “Dan? Do you think we’ll ever be able to have children?”
“Sure we will Em. We just have to keep trying.”
All those times, I would wonder if he even wanted children. Maybe he was happy I hadn’t been able to get pregnant. Then I would wonder if I wanted to get pregnant with him. Every other week I was thinking about divorce. Maybe Dan would be different once the baby was here. He started yawning. He’d worked late the night before and we’d gotten up early to make the five hour trip. He crossed his arms and leaned his head against the window and slept. I had started getting tired. I closed my eyes a couple of times.
Dan’s eyes are open again. His arm twitches under my hand and he looks over at me. “Em? It’s bad Em. I can tell. Would you sing for me?” I squeeze his arm. I try but I can’t assemble any sympathy. A fresh wave of nausea washes through me. I lean in and look into his eyes and nod as I speak to make him understand. “Dan, I’m not singing the fight song. Okay? You know I hate it.”
“Just sing. Em.”
I try, but my skull grinds against itself and I can’t think of any song. I can’t even think of the words to the fight song.
Why does he want a song? This isn’t a movie for Christ’s sake. It doesn’t need a sound track.
The dog is still barking. It’s comforting. I picture the house, the farmer’s hands. I lay back cautiously, my leg harping at me. Hay stubble is stabbing my ribs and I shift. Dan is breathing backwards, hard on the exhale, nothing on the inhale. I wish he would stop it. I want to hear the dog. I close my eyes against the stars. Their fluttering light hurts my head.
In time there is a new sound, like a long slow exhale. It’s getting louder. I open my eyes and the stars shimmer and stab at me. A car is coming. I struggle back up onto my elbow and headlights flash through the line of trees at the bend in the road. Then the road straightens and the headlights are pointing down the road, parallel to us.
What am I supposed to do?
My brain is banging against my skull. I don’t want a puzzle now. I realize that they can’t see us because of the trees, the windbreak. It’s hiding us out here in the dark.
Unless they turn their heads they’ll never see us when they come out of the curve.
The mangled mess of our car is hidden out there in the dark. I look over at Dan, a pale mangled mess next to me. How many cars are going to even come past here this time of night? I have to get farther up than the windbreak so they can see me. Dan’s eyes are open. He looks scared again. I smooth his hair back, away from his forehead. It needs to be cut.
“Dan I have to get to the road for help. For you.”
He mouths a word, sing.
And a piano intro unwinds in my mind. The song is “My Immortal.” I know the lyrics, though I’ve never sung them before. I’ve heard them over and over through the closed door to the spare room in our apartment. After the second round of chemo and radiation therapy was finished but the cancer was still rampant and his sister Rachel was buried. Dan had listened to this song for three weeks, untouchable, haunting our rooms and our bed. I had thought that the song was a soundtrack for his self-pity. Then one day he emerged from the room almost as if nothing had happened, as distant as ever.
Now, Dan is agitated. “Don’t go yet. Sing.”
I always sang in the shower. For a while after we’d moved in together I’d sometimes pulled aside the curtain to find Dan sitting on the toilet lid, gazing at the wall, listening to me. Sometimes he’d say, “I love your voice.” Then he’d stand up and leave the room. As soon as I began to expect him to be sitting there he’d stopped.
In the field, in the dark, under the billion blinking stars I sing the first line while piano keys in my mind unspool the tune.
I’m so tired of being here, suppressed by all my childish fears
It catches in my throat.
His eyes gleam in his petulant little boy face. “Don’t stop.”
I think, He’s going to die. So I sing.
And if you have to leave, I wish that you would just leave
Your presence still lingers here and it won’t leave me alone
He relaxes. I watch as the lines in his face un-crease. He is smiling. He closes his eyes.
Another car comes around the bend and into the straight away but does not slow. I push away from Dan and sing. I push myself up onto my good leg while my head mushrooms and tiny black pocks squirm and pop in front of my eyes. I try to hop toward the road. I fall and it hurts too much so I crawl as I had before, dragging my pulsing leg behind me, away from the dark bulk of our car and the shape of Dan, still smiling.
She turns off the shower knob and wrings the water from her hair and pulls back the shower curtain. On the floor her son, who is almost three, sits facing the toilet, mesmerized. His head tilts back and he leans against the smooth wall. This once, his hands are assembled in his lap atop his jeans. His focus drifts off of the ceiling. He looks up and finds his mother’s face.
“You sing pretty, momma.”
Mike L. Nichols is a graduate of Idaho State University and a recipient of the Ford Swetnam Poetry Prize. He lives and writes in Eastern Idaho. Look for his work in Underground Voices, Black Rock & Sage, The Literary Nest, The Blue Nib and elsewhere. Find more at deadgirldancing.net