Life Moving Forward
This work was reprinted with permission from the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards
Helm Drive is barely a road, just compacted red clay surrounded by sandbrush and logging graveyards. I take the last sip of my Arnold Palmer. In a year’s time, all this emptiness will be green, skinny trees and stumplings taking root in the cinder rich soil. Gradually this fades to lawns of centipede grass and cheap plastic furniture. Mama’s house is at the head of the road, back porch facing the woods. I see the glinting of her stained glass encrusted wind chime before anything else.
Parking, I see Danny’s new silver Toyota in the drive. He bought it in May. I stomp out my cigarette butt on my rubber floor mat, come out of my truck, and begin walking towards the front door. I glimpse at the backyard, to the bare sand patch where my truck was parked, where it went up in flames in the June night air. The August heat has sucked dry what would be left of the green grass and dandelion weeds.
The house is yellow and white, holly bushes trimmed carefully by me, cinder block steps scrubbed spotless. I wipe beads of water from my upper lip. The wind chimes tinkle.
“Nelson, get your ass in this house, now!” Mama appears from behind the screen door. She smacks her candy pink cane against the wood floor, leaning up to kiss my cheek. Her body is thin and crooked as the runt pines, dark and wrapped in silky pajamas.
“Boy, you smell,” she grumbles, ushering me through the door. I hear the light noises of my brother and his wife in the kitchen. I take off my boots and leave them on the shoe tree.
“They here?” I swallow a thick patch of saliva working its way up my throat.
“Yeah.” I follow Mama’s bobbing head of grey hair down the hallway. I think it looks like a nest of baby birds. Ready to crack. “They wasn’t late like you, damn fool. You smell like cigarettes.”
I chuckle nervously under my breath. My fingers twitch in my jean pockets. There’s no apologizing for what I’ve done, and none for Danny either.
Danny and Aria are in the kitchen, pulling a pan of cornbread from the oven. Blood rushes under my cheeks.
“Hey,” I drawl. I step forward and reach out my hand. Danny looks at me, and shakes my hand shortly. He’s showered and trimmed, wearing a buttondown. I imagine Aria ironing the dark blue fabric in the early morning, still tasting my mouth. A pink scar stretches across the bridge of Danny’s nose.
“Nelson,” Aria says quietly in greeting. Her small eyes, curved like orange slices, avoid mine. Like hanging apples, her breasts press against the white fabric of her shirt. She runs a hand through thick honey brown hair.
“It’s good to see you, Danny.” I don’t respond to Aria because I do not know how to apologize for wanting her, how to remember she is no longer my friend.
“Yeah,” Danny sniffs.
Mama pokes her cane into my back. “Nelson, come sit with me. Come sit with your Mama.”
I nod and retreat to the kitchen table. Resting my sweating palms on the cool, fruit patterned Naugahyde table, I watch Danny and Aria cut through the cornbread and organize the plates. Steam runs around the window, catching in the baby bamboo plants and porcelain salt shakers. Their bodies bend away from each other, awkwardly working the wrap around counter. A newspaper turned up on the table says the heatwave will last another week.
“Sorry I’m late, Mama.”
“I know. It was killin’ me that y’all weren’t seeing one another, Nelson.” Mama licks her small, grayish lips.
I rub my temples. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here to help you this morning.” I moved back in with Mama after her second round of chemo. I’d spent the night drinking with my buddy Cecil, and now I could smell on her that she hadn’t been able to bathe on her own.
“Quit being sorry all the time baby,” Mama whispers.
In the corner of my eye, I can see out the back door what is left of my truck— a charred steering wheel, a muffler. Scraps. A smile plays on my lips because I’m sorry I lost that truck too. I loved that truck. When I was seventeen, I used to pick up Aria from school with a paper sack of food and drive her out to the pond kitty-cornered to Helm Drive. We’d eat sandwiches and skinny dip until the sun set and the water began to sting. That tradition started after Danny went to college. It ended when he came back and proposed.
Danny carries a platter of bread, tomato slices, and butter. Aria brings a pitcher of sweet tea and glasses.
“Any new word from the doctor, Mama?” Danny sits and dips a butter knife into the dish, looking at the string of moles across Mama’s cheek bones.
“Oh, I’m dying, baby. That’s all he’s got to say.”
Mama lost her fear of death after the third round of chemo. The cancer’s been around since Danny graduated high school. Her hair grows in dry and thin, and comes out in bunches when I brush it. Under her clothes is a network of bone and bruised skin. Sometimes I think I’m more afraid for the end than my brother. I’ve worked with the fire department doing controlled burns on state land for almost two years now, and each day I realize Mama has begun to look more and more like the ash that sticks to my boots.
“Don’t say that, Hilda.” Aria twists her wedding ring around on her finger. If Mama knew Aria was the reason Danny and I fought, it might kill her.
Almost every night I find my mind entertaining the memory of Aria’s tiny, urgent mouth on mine, her hand sliding down my pants in the upstairs bathroom.
“How’s work, Nelson?” Danny asks me.
“Not bad.” My hand passes over the scar he gave me, an upside down moon under my ribs. “Got a pretty nice raise this spring, so I bought that Ford out there for cheap.”
Danny laughs in a cheap way and looks down at the table. This is the sound he makes when he’s done something wrong. I remember it when Mama caught him drinking for the first time, or when he spied on Aria changing in her window from our side fence. I knew it because we used to do those things together. We’d smoke blacks and shoot fish in the creek. He’d talk to me about Aria, where he took her out every Saturday. “You’ll find your girl one day,” he’d say, and then burn me quick and playful on the forearm with his cigarette butt.
“Danny just got promoted too,” Aria lifts her hand to rub his shoulders, but stops.
“No more cold calls for me. I’m running the office now.” There’s a chip in his front tooth that matches a knick on my left knuckle. I wonder if old ladies buying life insurance from him think it’s ugly.
I replay the scene like a tape with a magnetic pull, refusing to let go, winding back to that night. It was early June. We were sitting in the backyard in canvas chairs, drinking out of plastic cups. Danny and I had a bottle of malt, and Aria was sipping vodka and ginger ale. My feet were bare, digging into the itchy dry grass, finding their way to the cold soil underneath. I’d just finished a twelve-hour shift. I could still feel the fire on my skin, cheeks ruddy and red.
“You think Cecil’s home?” Danny asked me. He was wearing a white t-shirt, little brown stains from his drink around his collar.
“Cecil’s always home.” Cecil worked from his apartment doing blueprints for city planners. He rolled with Danny and me in high school. Since then he’d gained about a hundred pounds and a serious aversion to the outside world. Cecil spends most of his time drinking, sketching, and reading obscure books he buys off the public library.
“Let’s go see him,” Aria sat up a little. Mama had spent the morning in the bathroom, head hung over the toilet bowl. We’d just decided to stop the treatment for good. She knew I went to Cecil’s when life got to me, and judging from her look she’d known that night it had.
I was looking around at the yellow sky, sweaty and relaxed. The thought of sinking into Cecil’s cool concrete floors with a bottle lifted my spirits.
“I’ll go call a cab,” Danny rose quickly, stumbling back a few steps. His long face was slack in the evening light, lips loose, eyes wet.
I stood, taking a deep breath. I wasn’t too drunk. I knew I could carry Mama’s weight on my right arm and help her weak legs down the hall to her room.
“Let’s go get Mama,” I said, nodding to Aria. Her lips were bright red, legs a rich caramel tan.
We left Danny in the kitchen, struggling to press the right buttons on the phone.
“Come on to bed, Mama.” I touched her shoulder, already asleep in front of her favorite paid programming, a pastor preaching in front of a large cross painted purple.
“We’re gonna take Nelson to Cecil’s with us for a while,” Aria said, taking Mama’s other arm as she stood. We began the shuffle. “He’ll be back before you wake up.”
“Stay out late as you want, baby,” Mama yawned.
In her room, Aria helped me change Mama into her pajamas, turn down the bed, close the curtains, let her use the bathroom, and get her settled. Danny was cackling with someone on the other line, voice carrying in the still house.
“I don’t think it’s gonna be much longer,” I said, once we’d let her be.
“Don’t say that, Nelson.” Aria leaned against the hallway wall.
It was almost too dark to see her face. Blueness soaked into everything. The sun was gone, and my mind felt soft.
“I don’t understand how you do it,” she kept speaking. Her body looked like the reflection of light on a lake, shaking silver. “Danny doesn’t do shit for her. He can barely look at her. All he does is drink and work.”
“Don’t say that.”
“What else is there to say?”
Cicadas had begun to hum outside. Aria’s eyes looked like the center of a flame, blue and darting. My mouth was slick and sticky. I was thinking about our young white bodies slipping into the water of the pond, her thighs leaving imprints on my trucks leather seats, the expert way her thumb coaxed fire from a lighter. “I’m gonna go clean up before we go.”
She followed me, and found me slapping cold water on my cheeks. The way she said my name was tender, a tone of voice I’d never heard from her.
“Nelson, I love you,” she’d said, and suddenly her red mouth was on my throat. “I’m not happy, Nelson. I’m not happy.”
For three months I’ve chalked it up to the drinking, to not getting laid in too long. But I know I did it because she felt like life, hot and bitter and moving forward. There was nothing stagnant or decaying about her body. And I needed that.
When Danny opened the door, she started crying. The tears turned to screams when he hit me. I could see the stars out the latch window as my head snapped back, flung from the force of Danny’s fist.
He drug me down the stairs and through the kitchen. At first, I didn’t fight back, fading in and out of consciousness. When I finally came to, the soft skin under my ribs was hitting the steps to the backyard, ripping open.
“You bastard!” His booted foot hit me in the stomach. The surprise in his eyes, seeing the blood soaking through the torso of my shirt, was glossed, pupils big as a quarter.
“Stop, Danny!” The light coming from the inside of the house clung to the shape of Aria in the doorway, golden and fuzzy.
I stayed down when Danny backed off of me. Mama was hollering from inside the house somewhere, crying out for someone to tell her what was happening. A full moon boasted its broad face in the sky. Aria came to my side, touching the blood on my upper lip.
“Get the fuck off me,” I pushed her away, mouth filling with bile.
Danny passed us again with the gas can Mama keeps in the basement and a patch of matches.
“What the hell?” Aria stood. I looked up and saw a bat flit by, stroking the night sky with its wing. A sound I knew well filled my ears. The sound of fire taking hold and spreading fast. I pushed myself up from my palms, drool hanging from my lips in strings. My truck, parked on the sand patch so I could change my oil, had been taken in licks of orange and white heat.
Danny hauled me away. I began to hit him as the gas tank burst, and the fire turned black and red. Pain created an anger in me that I often saw in my brother. When I finished, I threw up, looking up to see dark blood leaking from a cut on his nose.
The cut is now closed, the same color as Mama’s cane.
“I’m sorry, Danny,” I say quietly.
I see in his wide-set eyes the fear he has for himself. The fear that he drank too much, that he’d hurt someone, that he’d lose his wife because of this.
“That doesn’t fix anything, Nelson.”
Danny will not forgive me. I nod, sweat pooling up under my arms. “I guess I just have to fix everything else for you, don’t I? When’s the last time you went to the doctors with Mama? Or helped pay the bills?”
“Nelson, shut up,” Aria snaps. “Don’t.”
“Boys,” Mama’s voice falters and falls into a coughing fit. I hold a napkin to her mouth until she’s done. Danny looks away. Spots of pink are soaked into the cloth. “Please don’t, boys. Just don’t talk about it, whatever the hell you two fought about.”
“Yeah.” I pass my hands over my face, pressing into the sore muscles along my jaw and neck. I look at my brother and Aria. I’ve known their faces my whole life, but with the absence of their love the features are alien. This place is not a part of their world anymore, and because of that, I am not. “I’m glad y’all came. Maybe it’s time you leave.”
“Oh Christ, now y’all are sour. My God, Danny, look at what you did. Go out there and look at that truck. I didn’t raise you to be this way. Let me up, Nelson. Let me up. Dr. Rutherford’s sermon is gonna be on channel six in a few minutes. Least someone’ll make sense today.”
“Mama,” Danny stands and touches Mama’s arm. I can see the coldness surprises him.
I take Mama into the living room and help her into her recliner. I get down on my knees next to her armrest and hand her the remote. Aria and Danny begin to argue in the kitchen. Mama turns up the volume on a little bald man with a bible in one hand.
“Mama, I’m sorry.”
“What did you do, baby?”
I don’t answer. I take Mama’s hand. She looks at the veins and callouses noosing my joints. “Sometimes I think I’ll die before you two stop fighting. Least I’ll finally get some peace.”
Maybe the laugh is unceremonious, but it is the only easy thing I’ve done since I got home.
Danny and Aria pass us on their way to the door. I follow them outside to their car. The sun feels like an iron against my skin.
“Danny—” I begin to tell him that I’m sorry for the second time. Maybe I’ll tell him that I don’t plan on seeing him and Aria again, maybe not until after Mama has gone and I can breathe again. Until I’ve got my life back.
Instead, Danny interrupts me. “You fucking stink, Nelson. Like whiskey. Get your shit together.”
I look away.
“I love her, Nelson.” Danny taps my chest with his fist.
“I know.” I step away. From behind the seat back I see Aria’s mouth, pressed into a line. “See you around, man.”
He looks back once before opening his door and driving off. The look he has when he draws blood or had too much. Scared beyond belief. Then he’s gone, and I am left alone with Mama and the house.
I go back into our childhood home. I stretch out on the couch and listen to Dr. Rutherford drone on about Jesus and how we must love our families. He says the nature of forgiveness lies in love. If you can love your enemy, you can forgive them.
I’ll doze off somewhere in the Gospel and wake up in the evening. I’ll get up and take a shower, scrubbing the dirt out from under my fingernails. I will stare at the crack in the tile the back of my skull made when Danny took his first shot. My tongue will be dry, and my body will ache for something to happen. I’ll make Mama eat something for dinner, get her into the bath, and wash her with her favorite rosemary soap. I’ll help her take a pain pill and put thick cotton socks on her feet. After she’s asleep, I’ll go to the backyard. I’ll kick around in the scrap pile, inspect it. I’ll stay there until I find some old, rusty piece to take back inside with me.
ALEXA CURNUTTE is a junior creative writing major at Interlochen Arts Academy. She is from Jackson Springs, North Carolina. She has received several regional Gold Keys, a National Medal in fiction, and an American Voices Award nomination from the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. She has been a Merit Winner for short story in YoungArts, a finalist in the 2015 Charles Crupi Memorial Poetry Contest, and received The TWR Prize for Young Writers. Alexa’s work has appeared in the literary journals The Red Wheelbarrow, The Interlochen Review, Teenage Wasteland, and Polyphony HS.