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One Cold Drop Against Her Cheek

by

Carl Fuerst

 

 
     
   

 

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SHE'S SOMEWHERE ON THE APPLACHIAN TRAIL, STEPPING OUT OF HER TENT AND INTO ANOTHER NAMELESS DAY. It's been raining, and though the sun dances on the stream at her feet, the ground is soaked through with water, nudging cool through channels dug by roots of long gone trees. A scoop of wetness bounces off a leaf, onto her shoulder, and scrambles in random patterns down her arm, causing her to look at the trees and think, "There's more green here than the word 'green' can contain, and," she decides, "it's still not that green."
____There are other tents close to hers. Spiny nylon mounds, like tri-colored man-sized mushrooms sprouting from the undergrowth, alive with the sound of sleep breathing and the shuffle of water-proof bags. She thinks about the newness of these people, and she thinks about the green world, and she can feel the broad current of the strength in the calluses on her feet and the new layers of scars on her shins. It's a strength that exists independently of her will, and that's the reason it thrills her so much.
____And he's somewhere on his way to visit her, waking up in a motel room and scrambling for his wallet and cigarettes. "It's Sunday," he thinks. He punches himself in the head and he thinks, "Is it just me? Is it Sunday?" Seeing the unfamiliar furniture, he remembers. He lurches at a pad of motel stationary, furiously writing something that no one will ever read.
____Meanwhile, she boils purification tablets as friends peel from their tents. Their bodies are tan, hairy, muscular, lean; they're slightly bruised bananas rolled through the dirt. They say "Morning," as they gather around her, standing over the steam that rises from her tiny stove.
____After breakfast she arranges her pack and then she stands by the stream, admiring its rugged current, which, of all the things inside that stream, is the most that is its own, and she strains to hear its sound as she walks away, and she doesn't feel quite right, and it's going to be an hour or two before she realizes exactly why.
____So after a shower he stands on a damp bathroom floor. Grey-tinged boxers, a cigarette hanging from a bottom lip, flushing torn pieces of motel stationary down the toilet.
____She's far away from him and better with her pack on. Logically, her pack should be a source of frustration and stress, because it's forty pounds that restrict her mobility and obscure her peripheral sight and that anchor her feet to the feet of mountains as she climbs them and pushes her towards their bottoms as she descends. But it's also her life on her back, and that weight is directly connected to the sugar-speckled backs of chipmunks that scurry at the sound of her approach, and the smoky-pink tongues of the wild ponies that live on mossy plateaus in the mountains, and that, a week ago or maybe more, nibbled on her shoelaces while she braided flowers into their manes.
But now he's close, and he sits in his car on the side of the road, watching his legs fall asleep. A mud streaked sign sticks out of the dirt next to a trail head. It says "Appalachian Trail," and the bugs smeared in a random design across his windshield make him feel nervous and stupid and raw, so he tries to read one of the books he's brought along, but the words are thousands of inky fists clenched against him. He's hours early. He can’t think of anything else to do.
____He's afraid to get out of his car and look down the trail. This is important. He doesn't even want a glimpse.
____Clouds come back, they smoke into the sky and she looks up at the dull silver-gray and senses the coming rain, and when the wet does come she can’t tell whether it’s the first of a new rain or the last of yesterday’s dripping from the tree canopy (like a homemade blanket) above her head. The rain mixes with her first sweat of the day, and it isn’t hard, and it’s warm.
____She listens to birds. Small chirps sound like music box notes and big chirps like a strange drum in the heart of a maze of underwater caves. The trail shimmers in the wet and in her thoughts. She remembers Yellowstone, where she sat in an oversized rocking chair in front of Lake Lodge, sipping dark beer and watching blood colored sunsets strike a nameless lake. She remembers chocolate chip cookies, song lyrics, and the first time she tried LSD. She doesn’t think of any of these things particularly. They aren’t slides she studies in sequence under a microscope. They are a flock of birds resting on the countless branches of her mind.
____She can see him at the top of the hill, pacing in the road; slouched and looking at the ground.
____She can’t think of words.
____He looks up, sees her. He walks to the edge of the road, to the mouth of the trail, his belt buckle catching a scrap of light and bouncing it into her face.
____“Hello.” She says. It echoes.
____His shirt is open and his belly is pale. His shorts are ripped. He’s wearing worn out dime store sandals, and his toes hang off the end, crooked and almost as calloused as hers. He hugs her, and she hugs back; he tries to pick her up but can’t because of the weight of her pack and new muscles, and because she’s slick with sweat. They line up their faces to kiss, but don’t.
____"Hello," he says. "It's good to see you."
____"It's good to be seen."
____He hands her the keys.
____She hasn't driven in months, and her body is sensitive to the movements of the car. She accelerates into a curve and, for a brief instant, her entire world feels strange.
____He coughs.
____"How do you like my mountains?" she asks.
____He looks at her like she's asked him how it feels to lay an egg. "They make me feel buried alive."
____"You prefer flat?"
____"I prefer to see where I'm going." He looks at her and looks out the window.
____"I talked to your brother."
____"Sure."
____"You heard?"
____"No."
____"I called. To see if you left. No answer. I called your parents and your brother answered."
____"What did you talk about?"
____"I asked him when you left. He didn't know. I asked for your parents and he put the phone down, and I hung up after five minutes. I was on a payphone. I couldn't sit and wait."
____"Sometimes he answers the phone in his sleep. Says hello, all in his sleep."
____"Why was he at your parents'?"
____He shrugs. Undoes his seatbelt. Does it. Undoes it again. "I haven't talked to him since Christmas."
____"Right."
____A few moments later, as the car cycles its gears against an inconsistent slope, he says, "Baby I'm sorry. I'm out of my element. To see you fall out of the woods like a piece of fruit. I'm emotionally overwhelmed."
____"Don't be overwhelmed. It's a waste."
____"I'll cheer up."
____"You better."
____A dozen miles later, they sit on a curb and throw nachos at a puppy tied to a bike rack. They're holding hands, their fingers warm and happy in the familiar territory of each others' palms. The ferns along the road whisper in the same language as the mountains whose complicated layers of green dip and swell like an ancient ocean suspended in a slow and meditative roll.
____"Driving last night," he says, "I got lost, and, amazingly, in the middle of your mountains where the only sign of civilization I'd seen in an hour was a cemetery, I found a gas station, all lit up and open."
____"You must have thought, 'Thank God.'"
____"I did. And there was a worker sitting on a bench out in front. I asked him if I was near Troutdale, and he said, 'Excuse me?' and I repeated the question, and then he lifted a horn, like something off an old Victrola, and he put it to his ear, and I put my mouth right in the horn and asked him again, and he shrugged, and he said, 'This horn leads straight to my heart.'"
____"Did you get the information?"
____"No communication. So I filled up my tank and followed the light pollution to a town, thinking the whole time, 'Please let that be light pollution and not the sun coming up."
____"I'm glad it worked. I'm glad you made it. I'm glad you came."
____"Baby maybe it stinks that I need to hear that but I do need to hear that so thank you, because I'm glad I came, too."
____And he kisses her and cranks his bones into the upright position and dances with the puppy, hoping gingerly on an injured foot. He'd sprained his ankle, she suddenly remembers, and watching him dance with that dog, seeing the common joy in both their eyes, she thinks, ____"I'm glad that I've decided to love this man."
It’s a self conscious thought, and she knows she has made it because she wants that moment to be beautiful and good, but, regardless, it has some truth.
____She gathers their garbage and brings it inside the store to throw it away. Turns around and he’s there, with the weight of his eyes the opposite of the weight of her pack. It’s directly connected to all the opposite things.
____“Why did you follow?” she says.
____He looks embarrassed.
____“Don’t follow me around,” she says. “That's not why I wanted you to come. That's not why you came."
____As they head to the car he skips a pebble across the lot, and, as they drive away, the puppy scoops the pebble into its mouth, bites down, and spits a tiny puddle of blood, in the middle of which floats a perfect tooth, an island of smooth and pointed white in the middle of a miniature sea of red.
____And though his ankle limits the amount of hiking they can accomplish, his visit is an active one. A folk music festival at a famous Asheville nightclub. Movies. Restaurants. Hotel rooms and bars, and a trip to the Smokies where he gets chased by a bee and trips into a ten foot ditch.
____Towards the end of the visit, they’re camping on the bank of the French Broad River. Hot Springs, Virginia. She suggested they camp there because when she'd visited before, weeks ago, campfires burned along the river, and the bars shined with joking, friendly, dusty strangers. By now all the hikers have passed through, and the place is empty and the bars are hostile and dark.
They’re sitting on the bank and the mud and the water are so coffee-black it's impossible to determine exactly where they meet. He’s wearing pin striped pajamas that she bought him for Christmas, and he’s talking about the water, and the moon.
____“Things aren’t good,” she says.
____"When I close my eyes," he says, "the river sounds like traffic." ____He opens his eyes and says, "River." Closes them. "Traffic."
____"Hey," she says. "Thing's are bad."
____“How’s that?” his voice injected with desperate charm.
____“You don’t care about what I’m doing.”
____“I hate what you're doing."
____“It’s like hating my life.”
____“No."
____“I don’t think you’re in love with me.”
____“I love you.”
____She's already made her decision; she only has to overcome his struggle to deny it. "I need to be independent," she says.
____He handles his voice with the fear and care with which someone handles an animal they’ve caught in a trap. "There's a fine line between independence and selfishness."
____"Maybe I'm a selfish person," she says, and they both know it isn't true.
____When they're done she goes to the tent and he spends the remainder of the night patrolling the parameter of their campsite and crying. When she wakes up, and it must be almost noon, he's sitting in the car in mud streaked pajamas, sipping cold coffee from a thermos they'd filled and forgot about after.
____"I could hear you breathing all night," he says.
____"Stop being meaningful. Where do you want to go?"
____He drops her off in Damascus, Virginia, for a hiker festival conveniently located close to where he'd picked her up along the trail. He helps her on with her pack, and they hug, and he says, "I love you," and she smiles maternally and watches him drive away, the radio so loud she can hear it after he's turned the block.
____She makes her way to the campsite for the festival. Hikers circled up for acres, kegs, raised flags, constructed compounds where strangers meet. Green tea, pine needles, marijuana, sweat. Lipton noodles. She’s excited about this festival and she’s excited about sleeping tonight, finding a spot where some indistinct noise will sing her to sleep, the bubbling of some stream or small chirping bird, gentle snoring, to keep her company and to bridge her back into her dreams, and something independent of her will to look at and delight in when the morning comes, and to hear its fading song as she walks away.
Meanwhile, he guides the car past Salem and Roanoke, blasting his radio, and when his car escapes the station's range of transmission he blasts the static, too, gorging himself on noise. A yellow dog darts across the highway to get split by the gas company truck one lane over, and a rainbow of gore arcs through the sky and patters across the front of his car.
____Later, he smears the dog across his windshield with a gas station squeegee. The station is surrounded by pines with flaky bark, and while the attendant pumps the gas he walks into a grove and lights a cigarette, and jumps when a man taps him on the back with a service-perfected "Sir," and asks him to sign a receipt.
____He follows the flow of traffic far off course, narrating the events of the visit to himself in ways he can accept. He makes revisions, rewriting the breakup as temporary, making it his idea, suggesting to himself that they've agreed to see other people until she completes the trail. He feels healthier and more stable in this way, so wrapped in a story of his own invention (like a homemade blanket), something no one will ever read.
____In the middle of West Virginia, the radio announces that June Carter Cash has died. It’s been months since he’s lied to himself this extensively, and his body is sensitive to any stimulus in the air, and the news of the death of a woman he mostly thinks of as Johnny Cash’s wife strikes him like a song he'd heard at a terrible time and hasn't thought about since. For a reason he's no longer able to determine, his body shakes in instant mourning and he swerves through three lanes of busy traffic towards the off ramp, screeching around its compacted curves until he sits in a the parking lot of another gas station, the mountains lower now, the sky like burnished bronze.
He gets out of his car, and a half dozen quarters spill from his lap onto the ground. He scoops them up, goes to the phone. Calls his parents. His brother answers.
____"Long time no talk," his brother says.
____"Why are you home?" he asks.
____"Bad luck," he says. "Where are you?"
____"West Virginia, I think. June Carter Cash is dead," his voice cracks sharply.
____"Do you need help?"
____"I'm fine."
____"How'd the visit go?"
____"Great. It went fine. Perfect."
____"I heard about June Carter Cash."
____"Who?"
____"Do you need money?"
____"No."
____"When will you get back?"
____"Not long. I have some time before I go back to work. I'm going to take my time. I just wanted to touch base."
____"Should I tell Mom you called?"
____"No."
____"Anything."
____"I'll call when I get back," he says.
____"Good."
____He hangs up and gets back on the road and eight hours later he's in a motel room in Kentucky, leaning against the balcony railing and listening to the band in the bar across the street. He floats down the stairs with the uneven energy of a day old helium balloon and discovers the motel pool, and he sits down and watches the moon dance on the surface of the water, and he can feel the cool and the love of his story rise from between the cracks in the cement, and he lets the feeling fill him up to the point of bursting while he watches the shifting reflection of reality in the water, and while he watches specks of bugs drown just an inch beneath the trembling surface of the pool.

 

     

Carl Fuerst

Carl Fuerst lives in Madison, Wisconsin. His work has appeared in Farmhouse magazine, and he has a forthcoming story in SNReview.  He is also the author the novel Killswitch. Readings of some of his stories can be heard at his blog, Break Room Stories www.breakroomstories.blogspot.com

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