Because she is seven days gone and he is so obviously heart-busted, I know it is not a good idea to talk to Tommy right now about Rosa or anything else. About how pointless this is. If it was a good time, then yes, I’d have things to say; we’ve been driving around for a long time. I’d say, “Tommy, I want to go home,” or “Dressing like a cowboy doesn’t make you one.” I’d say, “She is with Danny Lee now. She is probably gone for good, man.”
And it’s like a bad country song on the radio, what we’re doing. Driving around everywhere looking for Rosa like she’s missing or wants to be found, which neither is the case. There’s scrub and grasslands all yellowed outside the truck window and Two Forks sits like broken toys here, faded boxes of buildings lacing each side of the blacktop. There is always dust on the floorboards and the blue sky is so wide and bright, it’s like an ocean flung upside down across my eyes. We have been in Texas five months now, my brother and I.
“Maybe she’s at the café,” Tommy says, even though we both know that’s not true. She hasn’t been there since she dumped him a week ago. She’s on a bender with Danny Lee and we both know it. She’s fired as hell, why would she go back there? But Tommy doesn’t know where else to go. We’ve been all over the county, to all those bars in Marinville and Peyton, and Langston where we should of got groceries at the Shop’N’Save but I didn’t say anything because Tommy was in a bad mood already, and now we’re back at Two Forks. We’ve already been to the café earlier today for breakfast once, so what I think is that Tommy just wants to be around normal people on his day off. Normal people being people besides me. But this time at least I will remember to ask Tami for a little doggie bag for Wanda. Which I guess would really make it a turtle bag, which makes me smile.
We pull in and Tommy squints at me over the hood. “What’s so funny?” he says.
“Nothing,” I say, thinking of Wanda standing on her hind legs, eating food from a takeout bag and drinking a bottle of Lone Star, which is the shit beer here. This is called anthropomorphism, which is a word I would pretty much destroy with if I was able to use it in Scrabble.
Tommy says, “She’s a good woman, Toby. Don’t you be thinking different about her because she’s run off to get her bearings for a while.” He never talked this way in Portland, all hillbilly. Even most of the people here don’t talk like that. It makes me miss my life, like I don’t even know him sometimes.
“I don’t think that,” I say, even though maybe I do.
I liked Rosa. She would bring Wanda food all the time without me even asking her. Plus a hamster wheel for her tank once that Wanda was too fat to use, which was hilarious to watch. And yeah, she is very pretty, beautiful even. Definitely the prettiest of my brother’s girlfriends. They seemed to fit well, which makes me wonder what happened, how someone can just want to be there with you and then not.
Past the power poles on each side of the blacktop here, the ground looks like a burned blanket laid down flat. Everything yellow and brown with those canyon walls red and bone-like there in the distance. I’m still not used to how wide everyplace is. I’m not used to feeling this small.
Tami just smiles when she sees us for the second time in one day. She’s leaning on the counter talking to a man in a green shirt. She smells like hairspray and is almost as big as me, which is pretty big. My meds make me fat, which is something that Tommy says will change once my body adjusts. Which I know is also bullshit but is still nice of him to say.
“Back again,” she says to us as we sit at the counter. I like Tami’s face because she has one brown tooth that you can see just a bit of when she smiles; it’s like a secret that she’s not afraid of telling. She pours us coffee and the first thing I say is, “Remind me to ask you for some vegetables for Wanda before we leave.” Tami laughs – not mean – and says, “If I forget to remind you, remind me.” And she and I laugh at that and Tommy looks at us glaring like maybe both of us are head-wasted.
I want to say Don’t look at me like that. I am still older than you but we are each other’s keepers so I don’t. I know he’s trying to be more than what’s in his nature.
Tommy says, “Just coffee,” but even I can see his eyes asking Have you seen her? Rosa worked at the café and we would come in here a lot and joke around with her when she was working. Tommy’s been here every day since she hooked up with Danny Lee. Tami looks at his cup as she pours, like she is concentrating, but really she’s just avoiding his eyes.
I order another breakfast and Tami goes in the back and it is just the three of us. Tommy takes his baseball hat off – there’s a red stripe running around his forehead – and folds his arms on the table. He looks around the room like he’s stuck here.
“What the fuck,” Tommy says under his breath but not to me. If his words were solid things, they’d be stones hitting hard and bouncing to the floor. He wears his pain like a shirt, my brother does. Tami comes with my plate and also a paper cup with some corn and green beans and parsley and a baggie of ice on top and underneath, so nice, and I say “Thanks, darlin,” and she laughs so hard. The man in the green shirt even smiles. I read my dictionary and Tommy looks at the wall like he’s trying to see through it and that is our day.
We see eyes when we pull up to the trailer that night. They blaze like coins in the headlights and Tommy shuts the truck off and under the moon we see it’s a coyote. It is lean and still and grins at us like there’s a big joke somewhere right around the corner. It’s near my Coop where Wanda is but I’m not worried because it’s locked.
“Motherfucker,” Tommy breathes, yanking the .22 from the rack behind our heads. “Stay in the truck, Toby.” He opens his door and the coyote tenses but doesn’t run. Tommy fires two shots braced against the doorframe but he’s not really trying. He shot a bird with a BB gun once when we were kids. It was in the field behind our uncle’s house and we both cried watching its tiny, perfect chest heaving there in the snow, two drops of blood next to its head. We ran away and left it there to die; Tommy’s gun is like the way he rolls his shirtsleeves up to his elbows now or how he wears cowboy boots on his days off – he’s trying to find a new version of himself, one that makes him feel stronger. He blames himself for what happened to us.
The shots go way over the coyote’s head. It bounds away; there is a brief ripple of fur as it turns and runs into the scrub behind the trailer.
I know for sure that we are each other’s anchors, Tommy and me. We are debted to each other, which is how I look at it sometimes when I get sad listening to the coyotes howling up there on the ridge at night. I can’t read my dictionary when I hear them, it’s too hard to concentrate. Can’t even read my comics, which are, the word is, sequential.
When I say that Tommy and I are debted, it’s just a way of saying that I was twenty-one years old and still living at home with Tommy and Mom and Dad when the call came that he was in jail one night for fighting. This was in Portland and it was three years ago. He had just turned nineteen and was Heading Down A Bad Road as our mom said all the time. The call came late at night and the three of us got dressed and I drove even though I had to work at the pet store the next day. Back then I was in college studying biology and working. It was only my first year but I still have forgotten so much of what I’ve learned. The things I remember, they’re like pieces of furniture in a darkened room, like dim outlines. Thinking back to the me before is like thinking about someone you’ve heard of but never met. Someone whose stories get passed down to you.
It was quiet in the car that night. I drove because Mom never learned how – Tommy and I teased her about it a lot, which is one of the things I feel so bad about now – and Dad’s eyes were bad at night. They were already pretty old when they had us. I remember being mad at Tommy and how my mom kept worrying her bracelet with the fingers of her other hand. Me and Tommy were not really friends before the accident and sometimes I’m not sure if we are now or if it’s just the feeling that each other is all we have left.
About Wanda, a very important thing is that certain foods can keep her from absorbing calcium because they contain high amounts of oxalic acid, which I forget what that is but I used to know. But good ways for her to get calcium, which she needs, is feeding her crushed eggshells or oyster shells or even pieces of plaster, which makes me nervous so I just stick to eggshells. And what happened was we were exiting off I-5 to bail out Tommy with the sky like the bottom of a river and a drunk man hit us from behind. He was going over seventy miles an hour the police said later. The only person that didn’t die that night in both cars was me. They could see my brain through my skull they said, which actually helped because it swelled up really bad. There’s a scar now that runs from the top of my head down to my eyebrow. God, I was fast with my words once.
I know that’s what Texas is about to him, to step away from that all. I understand it. But when I think about it and feel sad, I have to play Scrabble with him or read my dictionary or comics or touch Wanda’s shell to go somewhere else. Remembering my old life is like trying to catch water with my hands.
The Coop is what we call the shed next to the trailer. Tommy fixed it up for me once he and Rosa started seeing each other because they wanted to Get Biblical in private all the time. I don’t mind, The trailer is small for two people anyways and can hold the memories of a fart someone kicked out three days before. There’s a little door and windows higher up and a hinge for my padlock. It stays mostly cool for Wanda, which is something she needs because she’s that kind of turtle, which is a Red Eared Slider. The only problem with the Coop is when you have to go number two.
I can see a little sliver of light under the door of the trailer but I knock to be polite anyway. There’s the mad stutter of feet and Tommy opens the door, his hair like corkscrews and a bottle of beer in his hand, and there is such a look in his eyes that I can tell how disappointed he is that it’s just me.
“Gotta go number two,” I mumble.
Tommy smiles and bows with his arm out. “By all means, my good man. Shit away.” He’s drunk.
The TV is on and there is trash everywhere. Empty bottles and chip bags and soup cans and I guess I should do the dishes even though I always do mine after I eat. There’s a dirt-stiff pair of socks on the small table mounded high with more bottles and Tommy’s work pants are slung over the chair.
The bathroom is very small. My knees are pressed hard against the door while I go. I wash my hands at the kitchen sink with Joy while Tommy sits at the table with his beer bottle. Some of Rosa’s clothes lay next to him. He has folded them and he sits in front of the TV like he’s waiting in an airport.
“Well,” I say, my hand on the doorknob, “thanks. See you tomorrow.”
He runs his hand down his face with a sound like sandpaper. “You want to go into town tomorrow or you want to stay here?”
“I’ll stay here,” I say. “Me and Wanda will hold down the fort.”
He nods. “You want a beer or anything?”
“No. I just had to go number two.”
Howls drift down from the ridge when I step outside and the moon is white and perfectly round. Tommy turns off the TV when I shut the door and the world is dark and silent except for the coyotes.
A week later we’re in the parking lot of the Shop’N’Save and Tommy sees Danny Lee getting into his truck with a sack of groceries. Tommy has mostly stopped talking about Rosa or looking for her, but he spins the wheel and screeches to a stop and people turn to look. He throws his baseball hat on the seat next to me and jumps out. He runs up to Danny Lee and kind of slaps the bag of groceries out of his hands. The bag falls to the ground and a loaf of bread spills out.
Tommy punches Danny Lee above his eye and then Danny Lee punches my brother twice in the mouth and then grips him by the shoulder and punches him in the stomach. Tommy crumples to the ground. I open my door and Tommy waves his hand at me and shakes his head.
Danny Lee picks his groceries up and puts them in his truck while my brother sits on his knees looking for his breath. A few drops of blood lay on the pavement like red dimes.
Danny Lee looks down at my brother and says, “It just happens like this sometimes. There wasn’t any plan or anything like that.” Danny Lee looks at me once and nods. This is one of those times where I’m sure I would have known what to do before but I’m frozen in my seat now.
Danny Lee drives away and a woman in big sunglasses and an embroidered shirt looks at us as she stands next to her car.
Tommy stands up and sneers at her. “The fuck are you looking at, honey?”
He gets back in the truck and rucks up his shirt to wipe the blood from his mouth. He puts his hat back on and we drive out of there.
When we make it back to the trailer later that day there are wet marks in the dust. I point to the one in front of the trailer door and Tommy goes back to the truck and gets the rifle. He walks a circle around the two buildings and puts the rifle back in the truck. We go into the trailer and Tommy turns on the TV and walks to the fridge. He says. “Do you want to sleep in here tonight?”
“No. I’m not scared of coyotes. I just don’t like how they sound.”
He presses a bottle of beer against his split lip. The trailer is hot and airless.
He moves Rosa’s clothes to the end of his bed and puts the rest of the stuff on the bench. He takes down Scrabble from the dresser under the table. Scrabble is something all my therapists and doctors said would help me and it’s something we do practically every day unless Tommy is very tired after work. The word is repetition. Tommy didn’t do well in school but playing word games everyday has helped us both learn a lot and actually Tommy doesn’t cuss as much.
We start playing and I don’t say anything about how we weren’t able to get any groceries at the Shop’N’Save because he got his ass kicked instead. After a while, Tommy puts some Rice-A-Roni and a can of green beans on the stove and I tease him about how he’s stalling for time. He smiles and uses all of his tiles with the word ‘penance’ and gets fifty extra points and it’s the first time he’s ever beat me at Scrabble. Seeing him smile like that makes me happier than I think it will.
The next day I am out in the shadow of the Coop reading comics with Wanda resting in the shade beside me and I see Danny Lee’s truck pull off the road in front of our trailer. Tommy is at work in Peyton where he helps make parts for the oilrigs and will be gone for hours. I don’t know what to do.
I pick Wanda up as gently as I can and step inside the Coop and put her in her tank. When I come out I try to get ready to fight but I’m already scared. But instead of Danny Lee, Rosa steps out of the truck, dust clouded behind her.
She smiles and says, “Hey, Toby,” like nothing has changed. She’s wearing a black cowboy shirt with white stitching and very tight jeans and I can see myself in her sunglasses as she walks up to me. Her hair is black like a wing and tied back. She hugs me like nothing is different and I don’t hug her back.
“Tommy isn’t here,” I say.
“I know,” she says. “But I left some of my stuff here. You think you could open the trailer up for me?”
“I don’t know if I should. Tommy might be mad. Maybe you should call him.”
Rosa takes her sunglasses off. She says my name like a sigh.
“Like you guys could get some beers together like before,” I say. “Talk it over. He went into the café every day looking for you.”
She smiles and shakes her head. “I don’t work there anymore.”
“No shit,” I say, which makes me feel good because I say it as fast as I would have said it before. But then I see the hurt look on her face and I do feel bad.
I say, “You should just call him is all.”
Rosa breathes deep and wipes at her eye like it could be a tear there but is probably just dust.
“I can’t call him, Toby. You can’t just not call someone and then call them. It doesn’t work like that.”
“It would with Tommy. I know it.”
She sighs hard like she does after I’ve seen her taking shots and then she takes a step backwards and says. “You want a ride into town?”
I hold up my comic. “Me and Wanda are reading.”
She looks at me and I can’t tell what she’s thinking. It’s mostly like she’s putting me in place, filing me away. The brain-damaged fat brother of a guy she went out with for a few months, a guy from out of town. She gets back in the truck.
“You know, I can’t believe he leaves you out here all day to… to just rot all day. It’s not right.”
“Well, a lot of things are not right,” I say. I’m so mad and not sure if I did the right thing and I want to take it back and not take it back but she drives away anyway.
I walk around the other side of the trailer, the sun hot on my shoulders, and when I look up, two coyotes are sitting twenty or thirty feet away from me. They are the color of sand and ash and the only things that move are their tongues. I realize suddenly that I’m crying, and I can feel the scar on my forehead throbbing. I pick up a rock and throw it towards the coyotes but they don’t move besides flicking their cold eyes towards me.
“Fuck off,” I scream, my voice cracking. “Beat it! Jet!”
I throw another rock at them and really try. It falls short but bounces towards one and it yelps and skitters backwards and then the two of them turn and lope away. They seem unworried and I stand there and try to catch my breath under the open hand of the sun.
When Tommy comes home the sunset is running like slow fire against the wall of the canyon. I have a piece of two by four I found leaning against the back of the trailer and I have been walking the perimeter of the trailer and the Coop for a long time. My feet are sore and I’m thirsty.
Tommy gets out of the truck smiling. “The hell, Toby? You look like you’re guarding Buckingham Palace or some shit.”
All my words come in a rush and Tommy’s face changes too. He has me sit on the trailer steps and he gets me a glass of water. I tell him about the coyotes and he says they must be hungry to come up that close in the daylight. Then I tell him about Rosa and how I didn’t let her in, how I said she should call him first. It looks like he is trying to figure out all the angles of the thing. He opens up the face of his cell phone, looks hard at it like he’s mad and then puts it away.
“You know what,” he says. “Fuck it.” He sits next to me on the steps and presses his shoulder against mine and it’s a comfort. “She wants that redneck, she can have him.”
He says he has something for me in the truck and we step out there, our shadows running long in the dust. On the seat is a new dictionary, a red hardcover one, way better than the paperback one I carry around all the time, which doesn’t have half the words I’m looking for.
“Bookstore in Peyton,” he says and I smile and pat his shoulder because we haven’t hugged each other since we were boys.
“Thank you,” I say. “It’s really nice.”
“It’s real old, man, look,” and he shows me the title page and the date it was published – the math takes me a while – makes it almost fifty years old.
“Now you can get filled in on all kinds of outdated misinformation,” he says, smiling.
“It’s as old as me and you put together,” I say.
I am looking at my book when he says some friends from his work are drinking in Two Forks and he wants to go. We get in the truck, the two of us.
We walk into the bar half an hour later and go over to the table with Tommy’s friends. I sit down and put my new dictionary beside me and I listen as Tommy and his friends drink beer and talk and laugh. I drink soda and laugh at some of the jokes – the ones I get – and someone plays country music on the jukebox. They order shots, Tommy and his friends, and get louder. And I see Tommy looking at some girls playing pool over in the corner of the bar and it’s a nice time. It’s good to see him happy and not like he wants to peel parts of himself away, walking around restless and busted all day and night. It seems to me like time can maybe heal most things. Maybe not all the way and maybe not everything, but just enough.
And then, when his friend Alan is telling a story about how he got fired from his last job, all that is gone. I realize that we didn’t lock up the Coop or the trailer when we left and that I didn’t put the top of Wanda’s tank on. It is like someone grabbing my throat and squeezing.
I say, “Tommy, we have to go.”
Tommy looks at me. His eyes are half-lidded and he’s drunk and I am mad at myself and afraid for not seeing this before.
“What’s the deal, man? Let’s stay awhile,” he says. He is slurring, is the word.
“We forgot to lock the trailer. Wanda’s lid isn’t on.”
He thinks about this for a moment, or pretends to. “I’m sure it’ll be fine, Toby. We’ll go after this round, okay?”
Tommy turns back to his friends and laughs at something Alan says and yes, all my good feelings are gone just like that.
I grab Tommy’s ring of keys and run out to the parking lot. I am trying to find the key to open the door when Tommy, behind me, says, “Door’s unlocked, Toby.”
He gets in the passenger seat. Drunk, he wears the look of a man surprised, his eyebrows raised and his mouth slack, but he doesn’t say anything as I get in and start the truck. I swear it’s as if the ghosts of our mom and dad are sitting right there between us.
I back out of the parking lot and Tommy says, almost cheerfully, “This is illegal as shit.”
The night stretches from one end of the world to the other, it seems like. I have traveled this road with Tommy a hundred, two hundred times. Driving comes back to me without even thinking and I wend my way through the few stoplights of Two Forks, passing the few random sets of glowing taillights on the way.
“She’ll be fine,” he says, and I want to believe him but don’t. There are so few remnants left of who I was.
We turn off the county road and bounce through the ruts in our driveway. I pull up to the trailer in darkness and brake so hard I hear rocks rattle and clang against the truck’s underside.
I hear them before I see them. A half dozen coyotes are braced around the entrance to the Coop. The door is ajar, the padlock hanging useless, the wedge of night in that place blacker than it is outside. The coyotes’ eyes have no light to reflect back at us.
Tommy and I step out of the truck. His hands, I see, are balled into fists. One of the coyotes leans back, its throat exposed, and the howl drifts long and lamenting into the sky.
My brother and I, we run headlong into the pack.