Fiction Issue #62

Looking for Jimmy

When I stuck the picture to the edge of the mirror, Maggie called me weird, which isn’t anything new, really. Seriously, B, that’s fucking morbid. I didn’t tell her what it was, its place in history, or that I’d found it in one those old glossy magazines in the basement that she loved to look through on the afternoons she told her parents she was studying at the library. I just sat on my bed and watched her reflection in the glass, the way she pouted her lips like a duck before applying coats of syrupy red lip gloss. I breathed in the chemical scent of strawberry and vanilla. 

I looked at the picture – the bullet-silver body crushed and twisted like a soda can popped under a shoe. The car was fast and sleek, and some believed cursed. I could see why. 

***

Danny sees the picture, but he doesn’t say anything. He’s in my room in an act of brotherly contrition. My 15th birthday came and went the week before, and no one was any the wiser. I’d marked the day by taking a ten from dad’s wallet while he slept off a black-hole night. I figured that he wouldn’t realize it was missing or, if he did, I’d guilt him for forgetting. Danny stands in front of where I’m lying on the graying carpet doing homework, his hands shoved deep in the pockets of his torn-up jeans, the graffitied toe of one sneaker twisting like a toy top in the faded strands. He reminds me of one those wild animals I saw in a movie in science class; the ones with bodies closed in on themselves, admitting defeat. I try not to care by pretending to give a shit about isosceles triangles. Come on, Bumblebee; I’ll buy you a piece of cake. When I look up at him, his eyes are soft, and his mouth curls on the right side like a broken bow, and he looks like he means it. He looks like mom always did. I want to tell him to fuck off and that I’m not a baby anymore, so stop calling me by that name, but I don’t. I never do.   

Danny’s remorse doesn’t end at cake. I guess this a few days later when he steamrolls me out of bed at an hour I haven’t seen on a Saturday in years. I want to show you something, Bumblebee. He doesn’t tell me what, just moves the covers back to get at the soft spot below my ribs; the spot he’s used to bend my body to laughter since I was three. And for a moment it feels like we’re back in time, back in the before. 

So, I go with him; sitting shotgun as he drives the length of the I-69, “Raindogs” on loop on the tape deck. For a couple of hours, I don’t see much more than a flat and unbroken backdrop of yellow-green grass and sky. I hang my arm out the window and down the side of the car door, my fingers catching in a patch of rust just below the handle. I lay my head on my shoulder and let the wind hit my face. The day is hot; one of those midwestern summer days that you don’t just feel, you breathe in until the stick of it bleeds clear from your skin. Like breathing underwater, Mom would say before pressing her thumb against the end of the hose and turning the cooling spray on me and my friends as we laughed and scattered on the lawn like dandelion seeds. Back when kids hanging out in the backyard on a summer’s day was a real thing.

When I see the sign for the cemetery, I think that I might know. I close one eye, reach my arm up and out in front of me, trace my fingers along the edge of the sign in the distance as if to caress it.  

***

It was Danny who put on Rebel Without a Cause on a night when the boredom and the weed set in our bones like extra gravity anchoring us to the couch. Maggie had come over that night, having lied to her parents that she would be sleeping at a house with a less heavy address.  I didn’t tell either of them that the movie had been Mom’s. Another leftover: that’s what I called the things that carried her mark, never differentiating between a body and an object. I had watched it with her once before, on a night when restlessness grabbed us both from sleep. She’d sat me next to her on the couch and started the VCR, giggling like a child at our shared midnight indiscretion. Stuck in my narcotic memory, I could still feel the slick gristle of butter and salt on my fingers from the popcorn she made us, and her skin on mine when she held my hand through the ache of longing that played out on the screen.

After the movie Maggie and I lay in my bed, a coil of limbs under the handmade quilt I’d rescued from the garbage months before, while she decided who in our class would play the parts in the movie.  Maggie was Judy, of course, because of those dark almond eyes – just like Natalie Wood – and because she always had to be wanted. Pete Keen was Plato because he was short and a nerd and probably had some Italian in him with that nose. Mark Adler was Jim because he was blonde and beautiful and the kind of guy who took vacations on “the coast” with his family to swim and eat lobster straight out of the ocean. I was one of Judy’s friends, one of the girls who don’t have a name in the movie but would be called Carol or Patsy or Sue in real life. I didn’t tell Maggie that I wanted to be Jim. Not just wanted it, but felt it somehow, like a current under my skin. I knew what it was to want to be seen and heard in a different way. I knew what it was to be in a body on the edge of something, half-alive in a chrysalis of wanting and unknown risk. 

***

The parking lot is nearly empty and that gives me some relief at not having to be a witness to the emotions of strangers. I follow Danny out of the car and across the gravel of the lot. I’ve never been to a cemetery before, and the orderliness of it unnerves me; the uniformly placed rows of headstones, the grass cut to military length. I think of our lawn at home and Danny’s haphazard attempts to keep it looking like something that won’t bring the neighbors on our backs. Nothing about our house has ever been orderly, really. But every few years, Mom would get it in her head to plant flowers in pots all around the yard and when summer would hit and there would be an explosion of color, just like Fourth of July fireworks, only better because it lasted for months. I wonder if I shouldn’t ask Danny if we should go and buy some flowers as a kind of offering, but that seems like too much effort. I walk next to him along the path between the headstones, let him put his arm around me and rough my hair with his hand without squirming away. Happy birthday, Bumblebee

***

I found mom’s scissors one morning before school, under the sink in a box with a jar of half-used face cream, an AVON compact, and a cake of blue eyeshadow that broke into fine grey dust when I touched it. I remembered the way she kneeled in front of me as I sat on the lid of the toilet, the tips of my toes grazing the tiled floor. How I could see the tiny red thumbprint above her left eyebrow when she blew her bangs aside with a sigh of concentration. She called it an angel’s kiss and told me it was a heavenly reminder to face her burdens on terra firma with grace. Danny told me she was full of shit and that it was just a birthmark. Years later, I would read that some cultures believed an angel’s kiss was a sign of unfulfilled desire, and I’d wonder why I hadn’t been marked in the same way. But I didn’t know that then; I just knew the warmth of her attention as she ran her hands down the length of my hair, pulling the ends gently past my shoulders for a better look. Perfect. The pressure of her lips on the tip of my nose was like a summer bruise. 

I stood in front of the mirror, watched as the blades cut through the thick strands of hair that fell away from my face like corn husks. The deep-set of my eyes and the cheekbones she gave me were sharper than I’d remembered. 

At school that day, Mark Adler called me a greaser because we were reading The Outsiders for English class and because he has no imagination. I tried to put on an image of distant cool before Maggie jumped in and called him a limp dick. He shut up then, because everyone knew they’d hooked up at Carrie Baker’s birthday party a few weeks before, and she was probably speaking from first-hand knowledge. That night, I sat on the floor of my bedroom between Danny’s legs as he curled above me on the bed, cutting away at the uneven hair at the back of my head. I don’t know, Bumblebee. It still looks like you went a couple of rounds with the lawnmower. My body tightened, a reflex that was close to breathing at that point, before I let go and laughed, turning my body to land an awkward punch to his ribs. 

***

Danny thinks he’s found the right one. An arched white stone with a bouquet of yellow daisies on the ground in front of it, the name CAL DEAN written in bold script and nothing else. Maybe it’s a kind of fake-out, Bumblebee, so people won’t mess with it – this was his name in one of his movies, I think. But I can’t believe it. He was heat, lightning, a supernova scorching through the galaxy – he couldn’t hide, even in death. 

You looking for Jimmy’s grave?

The old man is straight out of central casting in jeans and a cowboy hat almost as worn as the skin on his face; some rancher or farmer who doesn’t want to move his cattle or body off the land that made him and would swallow him back up when all that was left of him was dust. Danny looks confused at first, not used to the familiar name the man uses, then he gets it and nods at him. The man points a bony finger down the manicured lawn. Just past the hill. Danny thanks the man and starts in on the polite small talk he uses to throw old people off the fact that he looks like he might steal their car – a little subterfuge never hurt anyone, he likes to tell me. But I don’t want to look at the man and the way his body bends into the obviousness of the decay he exists in. I stare at that point in the distance, pulling at the hair behind my ear in the way I do when I am waiting for something to happen.  

***

Maggie liked to pull at my hair when she wanted something. Like the time she wanted me to go with her to the lake. To one of those end-of-year parties with the kids from school; where the girls lay on the grass in groups, limp and expectant, while the boys drank piss-beer and jumped from broken tree limbs into the muddy water, the certainty of their immortality in every movement of muscle and bone.  

Maggie sat next to where I lay on my bed flipping through a magazine.  Let’s go, B, it will be fun, I promise. She prodded me in that sing-song voice that I hated on other girls but, somehow, not on Maggie. And when I told her to go by herself, knowing she wouldn’t because she always needed an audience, she moved closer.  Her hands, soft and wiry on the back of my neck, were like static electricity. I nudged her away and told her I had my period. She got up and pulled a tampon out of her purse, telling me to stop being a baby. It was my silence that gave me away. I should have made a joke and thrown it back, but I sat dumb holding on to that paper-wrapped tube like it was some relic from an unknown world. 

I waited for pity, not the looks and nervous questions from teachers and neighbors who gave up waiting for an answer they didn’t really want to hear months ago, but something only Maggie would say; something about the crap of having to fend for myself in a house turned dank with man-odor and jizz-stained boxers. Instead, I got the mold of her hips against my own and a shift in her body that may have been the earth coming off its axis as she lay down next to me and put her hand on the flesh between the hem of my t-shirt and the top of my cutoffs. I’ll show you. When she unzipped my zipper, I felt embarrassed, not because of what she was doing but because I knew that my underwear was something that I’d grabbed off the kid’s aisle at the Dollar Store while shopping with Danny. I tried to watch as she slid her fingers beneath the band of the shapeless white cotton, her touch grounding my body in place on the bed so that my eyelids flickering open and shut was the only movement I could make. 

Because I couldn’t stop, I started telling Maggie things; telling her about the time the four of us took a family trip to walk the dunes. How dad and Danny gave up early, turning back to the car before the wind laid flat and the sun started to taunt flesh. How I’d followed mom every step, drawing my bony knees up like a soldier against the pull of the sand, watching the planes of her face become more rigid with each step. How I’d seen that look before, stolen its image like a thief while she sat alone and unaware on the back porch looking at the night sky. How when I reached the point where the near-gold dust ended, and the clear water began, the sun hit off the edge in fractals of light shining a halo around her as she turned to me and smiled. Sometimes you just need to see where it ends, Bumblebee.

My skin felt like it did then, flushed and alive, and I turned my head into the valley beneath Maggie’s chin, gnashing my teeth against her shoulder blade and breathing in the tang of sweat and soap, the distant scent of strawberry and vanilla. 

Later, I sat dangling my feet at the edge of the lake watching Maggie with Mark Adler. I excavated the meaning of her movements like an archaeologist; the flow of her arm up and out from her body, the bend of her neck as she leaned her head to listen to what Mark was saying, the flick of her wrist as she pushed at his tanned shoulder. I looked for the act in it; the way she looked at him, the way she laughed at what I imagined was stupid conversation. I couldn’t be angry at her though. She was just doing what we were taught to do, fit into the roles we were meant to. She hadn’t yet learned how careless that could be. I stood up and dove into the murky depths, let myself be dragged by weight and current until I emerged upon the surface too far away to be noticed. 

***

I expected something different – something like a large façade of marble shined to a perfect plane, cool and creamy to the touch. But the grave is depressing in its ordinariness, a small square stone with rough, unfinished trim and simple block letters: JAMES DEAN 1931 – 1955. I stare at it like I am waiting for it to be sucked into the ground and born anew into something remarkable. I try not to look at Danny, afraid that he will read the disappointment on my face and see it as a thanklessness I can’t take back. But he knows the set of my chin and the slouch of my shoulders. Isn’t much, is it, Bumblebee? Danny and his crooked smile. I see the way he looks at me, clear and open in a way I sometime forget exists. I have my dad’s blue eyes, but Danny has Mom’s: golden brown like a sunset. Hers, I could only ever follow as they reached toward a distance, but his I can climb into and feel their expanse like a warm breeze. For the first time in months, I don’t feel like throwing my name back at the air.  

I look back at the grave and think about the years of the man’s life – how he was 24 when he died, how that number usually follows an “only.” To me, that number is a signpost set clear across the country. Mom was three years younger when I was born, younger still with Danny. I think about what she might have felt when I was kicking around her stomach like an alien; that my entrance into the world was the beginning of something long and stubborn that would stretch down her days like an endless highway. Maybe he saw something similar and that’s why he drove so fast. Maybe some people are just meant for the edges of things. 

I remember the last time I saw her, the way her face looked in the light of my bedside lamp as she moved the blankets up and over my shoulders: soft and ordinary. I’ve spent hours mining my memory trying to find the phantom of a thing—a moment of hesitation, a look of guilt, a needy last touch—but my mind is stubborn in its truthfulness. There was nothing in that moment, just as there was nothing in the morning after she left. Except, I think, the shift of everything, the ordinary turned into the extraordinary: birthdays, haircuts, tampons. I think about the picture of the car on the mirror. An image of an aftermath, no matter how broken. 

It’s something, though.

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