Laurie Saurborn

Salvage

​Less than halfway through the eulogy, Anna’s head started spinning. Closing one eye to steady her stomach and regain equilibrium, she focused on her father’s oak casket as an unwavering horizon. Immediately after the service she and Rebecca Jean walked out of the church. As they cut through the tall, wet grass, their high heels sank into the mud. Back inside the rental car, they drank more wine from blue plastic cups and watched the rain trail down the windows, one drop following the next as if by instinct. Her sister broke the silence. “I think the only thing you can do,” she said, “is to make an imaginary baby of your sadness.” Anna reclined her seat and let her eyes shut for a moment. Her damp blouse clung to her skin, raising gooseflesh along her pale arms. She nodded. “But then what?” Rebecca Jean drained her cup. “Then,” she said, “you put all your grief into the baby, rock it in your arms, and throw the damn thing over a fence.” That was as far as they got about the baby. A tap at the passenger side window and their mother’s face appeared, worried behind the rain.
Today her sister is on an airplane home to San Diego and Anna and Walsh are headed back to Boston. They might have stayed another night at her mother’s—Anna wanted this—but Walsh was determined to leave today. After Anna helped box some of her father’s clothes, they departed in the late afternoon, driving barely two hours north and just passing the state line before stopping at this hotel. Remembering her husband’s earlier, irritated and over-loud words at the car—“Damn it, Anna, hurry the hell up”—she takes another drink from one of the two bottles Rebecca Jean gave her this morning. Inhaling deeply, she feels the muscles between her ribs stretch. The intercostals: a word that sounds like an argument between sandbars. Walsh can have the room. She and the dog will sleep here.
School has started in most places by now, family vacations have ended, and the parking lot, a plateau recently built on rolling Virginia farmland, is nearly vacant. Sitting on the back bumper beneath the lifted trunk of the hatchback, Anna holds the wine bottle between her knees and laces her fingers together, bending her elbows out. Nearly furious with the motion, she rocks the grief baby until her hands break apart. Weightless, the fake baby could float off in the night sky, like a spark from a bonfire, but instead she imagines it tumbling onto the cooling asphalt with her sandals. There are pieces of cork in her teeth and she spits one out, somewhat inefficiently, toward the ground and probably on the baby. Under which lie remnants of rabbit warrens, crushed gophers and their caved-in tunnels, cow manure, abandoned gardens, rust on metal. Visible or not, everything built on top of something else.
Cicadas begin to rasp from the trees. The steady pulse of their music reminds Anna of the beeps and alarms of the intensive care unit. Reaching under her thin t-shirt, from beneath the band of her bra she pulls a business card. White stock with embossed blue print on one side. A phone number written in black ballpoint on the other. The ten digits formed the phone number of Dr. Manuel, the specialist who treated her father during his last two hospitalizations for lung disease. Her mother, whose eastern Carolina accent can make every letter of the alphabet sound five times longer than it is, pronounced the doctor’s name in three syllables, with an extra, dipping lilt at the end: Man you well-ell. Slipping the card between her left breast and its corresponding bra cup, she wiggles the phone out of her pocket and texts three words with no punctuation: How are you
Her palms—sticky with tears for several nights—now begin to sweat. Without a question mark at the end the words seem to move around, to float. It is not an inquiry or a statement, but a gauge. Rearrange How into Who. Last evening at the funeral reception, he took her aside. At first he gently cupped her elbow, but then his hand moved to her upper arm and Anna started shaking in her black shift dress. Dr. Manuel’s pale green eyes—the color of limestone, underwater—matched the diagonal stripes in his tie. Leaning in close to her ear he said, “I’m sorry, Annabeth,” and then pressed his card in her hand before turning to go. As he passed the punchbowl, his hip brushed the arm of her grandmother’s crystal ladle. It slid gently into the mixture of ginger ale, sherbet and gin. He used her whole name, the one she left behind when she met Walsh in college.
During a lunch of chicken salad and iced tea at her mother’s today, she tried to catch Walsh’s glance to make sure of the color of his eyes, the eyes that share a face with a mouth that once said, I do. But Walsh is increasingly uninterested in making eye contact. And his I do, as hers, was spoken nearly seven years ago. Brown. The swallows climb higher and plummet more steeply. Walsh’s eyes are brown. Walsh, who was not at the funeral because he scheduled a call with Japanese investors interested in expanding their holdings in the American video game market. Walsh, who when Anna last tried to kiss him while wearing a navy-blue negligee he bought her many Valentines’ past, barely looked away from his computer as he said, “I have a deadline. Put your clothes back on.”
Her legs hanging over the bumper, Anna circles her bare feet in one direction and then the other. Closing her eyes, she sees Styrofoam cups of ice chips. Watches herself feeding them to her father with a white plastic spoon from the cafeteria. Unstoppably, her ears fill with Walsh saying, “I don’t like hospitals.” His voice stressed a different word each time he repeated the sentence in the parking garage, in the elevator, and in the hallway outside her father’s room. Walsh spent the last day of her father’s life talking business on the phone and pacing the hospital patio, a small, barren square patients could look out on from their rooms and in the course of twelve hours hope to watch the sun change the angle of its slanted rays on the cement.
Anna tosses the drained bottle in the freshly mown weeds, expecting it to tumble over the steeply graded slope at the edge of the parking lot. But it balances on the lip, the light from the hotel marquee casting the car’s shadow—the shadow in which she and Argonaut sit, their smaller shadows part of one larger—into the glass. Nudging her elbow, the dog’s worn nose moves like sandpaper on her skin. The water bowl is dry. Anna stands and unties her sister’s sweatshirt from her hips and threads her arms through the sleeves, zipping it halfway. Pushing the phone into the front pocket of her jeans, she says softly to the dog, “Back in a second.” He answers with a whap of his tail against the car floor. Swinging the dish, she walks toward the two-story hotel, newly built on this leveled hill. The moon, larger than she has ever seen, sits too close to the horizon.

Standing behind the lobby desk, a night clerk speaks into the phone. “Channel fifty. Dial the number and input your card number.” She says the word as two: In. Put.
&n
bsp;       Almost by way of greeting, people stare in these parts. Living up north for the past ten years, Anna forgot this, hid it among memories of growing up in the tail end of Appalachia. “Cautious are the descendants of the Scots-Irish,” her father used to say. The clerk, her eyes thickly rimmed in glittery green eyeliner, looks at Anna with that familiar, flat-road gaze. Anna smiles but the woman’s expression does not change. She lifts the bowl. “Water? For my dog. He got carsick.” Hopefully, she won’t see an out-of-town blonde art teacher in a paint-splattered Cal State sweatshirt waving a dog’s bowl, but a woman whose father was just buried less than one hundred miles away. Anna prays Rebecca Jean’s red wine did not stain her teeth and tongue.
Charlette looks over this skinny woman who has spent the last two hours in the parking lot, sitting in her car with a dog. She nods. Carsickness can happen. Other things can happen: two young children. A husband who is already her ex-husband. When the woman rubs the back of her free hand against her eye like a tired child might, she slightly smears her mascara. Charlette, reminded of her own sister, takes a pen from behind her ear and points with it at a cake dome full of cookies.
“Take a few of them. Chocolate-pecan is the best.”
            Pecan comes out pea-can. Again Anna sees her father, a late-in-life atheist, gathering pecans from the Baptist church parking lot early on Sunday mornings before the parishioners’ car tires smashed the meats in their shells. Anna holds the bowl under one arm and with her free hand takes two cookies and puts them in her pocket.
“Restroom’s just past the elevators.”
“Thank you.”
Charlette nods. There is a twang to the woman’s accent—​​you sounds like kew—that she recognizes and did not expect.
Alone in the restroom, Anna spits on her sweatshirt cuff and rubs the black smudge from under her eye. Her phone beeps. Not Walsh worrying over where she is, but a long text from a number she has already memorized. It begins: One green eye, one blue. Like gazing at two planets, near and far, at the same time.
Filling her palm with too much soap, she twists the faucet lever and holds both hands under the cool water. Last year she discovered she could no longer stomach the scent of Walsh’s skin—whether sweaty or freshly showered. Yet she continues folding his clothes and buying different detergents. Keeps putting it all away. Anna squeezes her eyes shut and shakes her head, the black filling with white-streaking stars. Begs herself to feel the way she once did about Walsh. To forget how he stormed into their bedroom that night six months ago, pushed the negligee up around her neck and forced himself into her while saying, “I’m so tired of this shit, Anna.” Argonaut keening in the corner.

Something about the boat. That is all Charlette can make out of the garbled voice mail from Bunn. Her back to the lobby, she listens to the message a third time. In the mirror behind the reception desk, she watches the woman walk slowly across the cream-colored tile floor, water brimming like a storm-swollen lake in the bowl she carries back outside. Beyond the sliding glass doors, Charlette can see that twilight is past. The parking lot is taking on a sepia tone. When she picked the boys up from school this afternoon in her mother’s sedan—last winter Bunn stole and totaled her truck—her older son began explaining the eclipse as soon as he opened the door.
“An eclipse of the moon, because we are between the sun and the moon and tonight the full moon will be in the darkest part of our shadow.” As usual, T.J.’s words rushed out in one long stream. He stretched his skinny, blue-white arms wide, his fingers stopping a good eight inches short of the smudged windows on either side. “Did you know our orbit is all lopsided?”
Enough is lopsided, for sure. Charlette looks at her polo-shirt-covered chest in the mirror. Hotel work does not pay as well as the factory, but she got sick and the factory closed. While nervous for the first months on the job at the Danville Inn, she can generally handle the emergencies: broken toilets, drunken guests, or a homeless man asking for leftover morning buns. Once, she opened the kitchen and gave a man two wrapped pastries and a cup of microwave-warmed coffee. But when he returned the next night in the company of a younger man who had staples in his neck and a thin dog on a rope, she called the police and started bringing the small 9mm to work. She keeps it in a quilted cosmetics case between the main phone and an old horticulture book one of the maids found forgotten in a room. Her sister brings a gun to work, too, but her sister is an exotic dancer. Knowing she needed the money, Jesslyn had once tried to convince her older sister to strip—“Just on the weekends,” she said, as if that made the proposition more tolerable—but early tumors run in the family. Charlette had a scare with cancer three years ago, around the time Bunn left, and the doctors removed one breast.
Jesslyn persisted. Charlette remained skeptical. “Who wants to see a one-tit stripper sling herself around a pole?”
“People,” her sister replied. “People do. Just get some vines and shit tattooed around the scar.” But by then Charlette was tired of needles.
When the clock above the lobby doors reads 10 p.m., she opens her first Mountain Dew. Antifreeze, Bunn calls it. Taking one long drink, and then another, Charlette twists one of her earrings, unsuccessfully dodging the thoughts that follow, of Bunn and his 18-year-old girlfriend, a Lumbee girl from down near Pembroke. Luria. The dart-throwing, pool-playing girl who works at Bunn’s favorite bar, Earl’s—which is, luckily or not, walking distance from the hotel and Bunn’s apartment. The girl Bunn once took around the old factory at night, to show her how it was still all lit up. The girl with “A little piece of Heaven” tattooed in an arc of script just above her backside in the low dip of her spine, above her butt barely wide as a grown man’s hand span. Luria. The bubbles from the drink burn Charlette’s throat.
Once there was a lot of time to fill, and so it was, with planning for how things were going to be. Now it is filled by how things were. If only she could get out of town for a little while, even three days. She wants to take the boys to the beach for a weekend in the fall, but no way will she have enough vacation time or money by then, as Bunn rarely pays support and she has an unending pile of medical bills. She knows she can stop smoking and save the money she spends on cigarettes, but Charlette cannot imagine not having smoking, not having that to reach for when she might yell at a guest or one of the boys. There is only so much a person can give up. When she took Baby Roy to the emergency room for the third time last spring, because of his asthma and because, having no health insurance, she can’t take the kids to the pediatrician in town, the intake nur
se asked if he was exposed to secondhand smoke. Charlette told her, “I only smoke outside.” Which is mostly true, while the boys are awake. But sometimes at night she does not want to go outside because it is cold or she is beat from work or she is afraid Bunn will stop by, and even the thin walls of her trailer are better than no boundary between them.
She opens the battered gardening book. When she isn’t helping a hotel guest, ignoring the phantom ache of her missing breast, or answering urgent texts from the boys about homework problems and extra dessert, Charlette spends the nights planning her next summer’s garden. Day lilies. Clematis for the trellis by the trailer’s plywood steps. Charlette likes putting things in the soil. Bulbs. Root balls. The ground doesn’t move like the water; it stays still for longer. Unlike Bunn, who is never calm on land. “It moves for me,” he once said of the boat. “I can just lay here on the water and rest.”

At the car, Anna stretches her arms overhead and then lets them drop. Her hands, hitting her thighs, make a slap louder than she intends but it doesn’t travel far enough to echo. Instead, the sound clings to her. Turning toward the barn, she catches sight of a figure in a white shirt walking along the dirt road between the farm and the hotel. Argonaut lifts his damp ash-and-black muzzle from the near-empty bowl, his tags scraping against the rim. At a distance a star is only a small light. At a distance words are meaningless. At a distance, the man is harmless. You’re moving in the wrong direction, the text said. Come back.
Anna opens the second bottle of wine. Leaning back on her elbows, she takes a deep drink and stares at the car’s ceiling. Above that is a rooftop carrier, full of cut bittersweet vines she collected from her mother’s yard this morning. Beyond that are a billion stars going on about their shining. Argonaut licks the cover of an old road atlas, the one her father gave her when she left for college. She sighs, thinking of her own lungs. She tries to recall the shape of Walsh’s eyes but instead sees the doctor’s tie. From the tie her mind jumps to her mother’s thin hands, clasping and releasing the cold rail running the length of her father’s bed.
At the hospital those last days, what Anna wanted was for Dr. Manuel to say: “I’m off at 10 p.m., do you want to get a drink?” For her to glance to where Walsh sat in the waiting area, typing on his computer, and for the doctor to lead her face back to his with one hand running from her ear to her chin. What Anna wanted was to say yes to the doctor with tie-matching eyes, jet-black hair whitening at the temples and skin the color of beach sand. Yes. I do. It was an action she could take while her father was dying. Something to do besides waiting and drawing rough scenes on a sketchpad: of Walsh’s back to her, of the profile of her mother’s downturned face, of the rich cascade of her sister’s thick curls. Of her father, agitated and uncomfortable, and finally unmoving, in his bed.
“This is like a sadistic Vegas,” her sister whispered that first day of the final week of their father’s life as she handed Anna another paper cup of bitter coffee spiked with bourbon. In or out of the hospital, Rebecca Jean did not pass her one non-alcoholic drink in those seven days, but her observation was clearheaded. The lone clock perched high on the wall may as well have lacked hands or numbers for all it explained. Could it make sense of how their father’s face, sunken under the fluorescent reading light above the hospital bed, seemed to retreat from inside? Or how, as his cough departed because he himself was nearing gone, the growl and groan of the air mattress rose to fill the silence, as though waiting for the chance all along?
The phone beeps. Another text: I didn’t have a chance to touch your hair.
A corner of the business card digs into her breast. From her layers of clothing, Anna pulls it free. Under the eclipsed—or is it eclipsing?—peach-colored moon, she feels the tumble and buzz below her bellybutton. Recalls Dr. Manuel’s grip on her upper arm and imagines his mouth on her neck. How he would bend to her. In two seconds, she could snake her jeans and underwear down and roll the card into a slender tube. Stick it inside while lying here in the rear of a hatchback with an old dog, drinking Rebecca Jean’s earthy red wine and waiting for the feeling of wanting to go into the hotel. Until she exhausts herself with the desire of anything else, and to sleep alongside Walsh is the single choice left.

When Bunn shows up at midnight, Charlette is deep in a field of daffodils. Through the automatic doors in the lobby she watches him smoking, ashing his cigarette into a pot of marigolds. She notices he wears the same shirt as last night, when he came around the hotel at nearly this exact time while waiting for Luria to finish closing the bar. For a couple years, Charlette saw little of her ex-husband. But at the beginning of the summer he started circling back. Appearing at the trailer or the Best Deal at odd hours when the boys or the guests are asleep. He flicks the butt-end of the cigarette—one of those dark brown, skinny Mores—up into an arc. It lands expertly in a bed of pale yellow snapdragons. The lobby doors slide open and Bunn walks in, a bulge showing on the outside of his left leg, above his knee. His hunting knife.
A few minutes ahead of Bunn, the woman from the parking lot had walked past the desk for the second time, holding the empty bowl. Now carrying another serving of water for the dog, she walks back through the lobby. She smiles at Charlette and casts her eyes—Are they two different colors? Charlette cannot be sure—slowly over Bunn. As she passes, Bunn turns, one eyebrow slightly raised. Charlette knows he is watching this woman’s ass and knows he knows Charlette is watching him watch her ass. The nape of Bunn’s neck is flushed bright pink. This gives Charlette some hope—maybe he was out working today, hauling for the brush removal company he started last year—but when he faces her she sees his cheeks and forehead are the color of Baby Roy’s favorite bubble gum. Which could mean he was mowing all day, except his eyes have that cloudy-glass look they take on when one of his fevers hit. Bunn’s approach to sickness is liquor and beer. It’s the brain that fights the idea of illness, not the body. A gene clicks on and there the body goes, like a dog to a pile of cow shit.
“Did you need something, Bunn? I’m working here.”
“Oh yeah.” He leans closer to Charlette. Waves his hand back and forth above the desk. Blue cue chalk darkens one knuckle, a blue that reminds her of a painting T.J. showed her on the computer at school. Starry night, or something like that. “Like this is really work.” Bunn’s voice cuts hard on the k of work. The wood-rough scent of cheap whiskey unfurls in the air between them. “Char-lette.” He breaks her name in two. Then, gesturing with his head toward the parking lot: “What’s that crazy bitch doing out there?