by Telisha Moore Leigg
“LaRissa,” Wishbone whispered to me all those years ago in the less-than-economy motel where we ended up after a few months on our own. “Give the joint back; take a puff or some shit! Jesus, kid! Get off the pot or piss.” How romantic, I thought, sitting on the mustard-colored, flower-patterned bed. I gave the joint back to him without puffing that time. Too scared then. But now? Well, all fear leaves eventually.
Because I was young, folks will blame my death on love, but that is not true either. Of course, I loved wrong: Wishbone Dexter, with his cracked old leather jacket, his blond and black-tipped Mohawk, a tattoo of a snake threading just below the left side of his collar. Nineteen-year-old druggie friend to my big brother. I was fourteen when my brother first brought him home to watch the Steelers’ football game on our snowy, non-cable television in our musty partial basement. They had snuck beers down there and Carl let me have a sip. Now, Da hated Wishbone, and he warned me, but it just made Wishbone look hotter. At fourteen going on twenty-five, in a seaside small town, how could I not love wrong? That was two years before I left, at sixteen, with Wishbone for Orlando, Florida. But love didn’t kill me. It was the leaving. No, it was the sea, my trying to make it back to my hometown, back home to the sea. Trying to swim back to grace.
Looking back, I don’t know why I ran away. By then, the sweet burn had me, track marks making a path on my arm. It was time to go and stay away this time. And since I was packing things broken and bruised, I might as well take some pain with me. So Wishbone came too. He didn’t even really have to sell me on it, was even drunk when he showed me his bicep, slurring “I’ll shrow you the worl, girl.” I just rolled my eyes. But I believed.
“All right, Wishbone, when we going to go?”
Wishbone’s real name was Robbie George—not Robert George, just Robbie George. His name was the only thing his druggie mother ever gave him that she didn’t take back, screw, or screw up and he hated it. In fact, Wishbone hated her. One stolen night smoking cigarettes by the dunes of the sea, I put my head on his shoulder and leaned into my memories to give to him.
“My mama’s gone too, Wishbone. We’re…”
“We’re nothing. Cherlene Dexter weren’t nothing, nothing but a crackhead, stupid. Why do you think I want to talk about some stupid shit?… Get me a beer from the car.” I got it. He didn’t like to talk about her, and hey, I could get with that. I remember swallowing my own spit and tears together, embarrassed, my own memories of my mother’s loss lost somewhere under the waves just ahead of us. Because I had wanted to talk about my mother to someone who wasn’t family, who couldn’t contradict my love, have some outside reality to diffuse the scent of memory, to tell some memory that someone didn’t say, “Rissie, it wasn’t really like that.” But that’s neither here nor there.
Either way, Wishbone was a much better name, like slipped magic that we could find. And at sixteen, with my middling grades, my glasses to see far, awkward and with no boyfriend, I wanted magic. Like my daddy would say, “Hell’s full of folks wanted one fish more than they caught.” I, too, wanted to know something more than what was given. That need damned me.
Secretly, I thought it was beautiful that Wishbone could feel so strongly for his mother, even if it was hate, because I couldn’t remember a lot about mine. Cancer. I was four. I can’t even remember her face.
We lasted four months on the road before all magic ended; before no one was a friend; nowhere to crash that we hadn’t stayed too long; no place to get money that we hadn’t tried, even sweeping parking lots until the hardcore bums chased us away with broken bottles and a dog chain. Still, sleeping in the shelters, I didn’t stutter in my determination to not go back. Wishbone didn’t get better, but I don’t blame him. Even now I believe no one starts out evil and no one can stay completely in the light.
“Shhhh. Look, it’s just this one time. No one will know. Just to get the money to get us home.” The man, maybe forty, came from the bathroom wiping his face with his hand. He wore shiny shoes, tugged at a crisp white- and gray-striped collar, and kept looking at me out of the side of his eyes, away and furtive. I wondered how Wishbone knew anyone as clean-cut as him, wondered why I was still sitting here waiting, why I was going to do this. I knew it wasn’t going to turn out right. In the end, I looked into the flowers in the pattern on the bedspread, the roses, maybe a tulip, vines trailing each to each with dull, dark gold-brown thread. Striped-Shirt-Man looked to Wishbone, who nodded, looked only to Wishbone as he handed him the money from a black wallet with a picture of some little blond boy in a red Little League shirt and white pants, all before he shoved the wallet in his back pocket. When Wishbone left, the man moved his eyes direct and sure. I just counted the flowers until the end.
I think we make deals with our pain. But it never works. I never knew why I hurt so much when others didn’t, why I felt such ache with no wound to show for it.
Wishbone came back later that night and held me in the rumpled coverlet. I remember sadness then like too-sweet air freshener in a car, in the heat, with the windows up, in a car that was junked and couldn’t run. Later, Wishbone stroked my back. It was dark in the motel room. … I think I cried because I couldn’t see the flowers.
“I ain’t going to do this again, Wishbone.”
“Okay…okay…no more… I love you.” And he moved closer to me, put his head on my chest like he was a child and I should comfort him while he cried. I knew everything I would ever learn about the world, about men in that moment, the taking, stretching of hope before they burned it, bitterness as sweet as the smack Wishbone introduced me to. And still, I could not get back to the sea.
Because they brought that pretty box back here, folks thought I died in my hometown, instead of with strangers in an alley just past the main street intersection next to the bus station. No one knew I overdosed lying on an opened refrigerator cardboard box trying to get a fix in Rarchland, North Carolina. No one from home knew I died landlocked, heart sore, just eleven miles out of Eden, North Carolina. Now, when I cannot tell anyone, I imagine Wishbone off crying on some other girl’s heart, in some dark motel room, making her into his mother who can’t die again.
I regret. I regret I made my father weep stones when he learned I’d already been buried in Rarchland by the city. My father, never far from the sea, traveled on land, yet he couldn’t bring me back even for the funeral. But he had another funeral in our hometown. It wasn’t me they buried at Oak Haven Cemetery, because I belonged to the sea. But I never got there again. At Morris and Northsham’s one-parlor, white and gold funeral home, the coffin was closed, weighted with rocks, not me. I was not there. I tell myself my death was not sad, but I think it was.
“Rissie, talk to me,” Wishbone said that next morning, but I would not speak. He left me with ten dollars at the bus station, said he had to pee. He ditched me and that was fine.
I have one memory of my mother. When I was a child, my mother grew heather in our backyard, purple or purple-gray. It waved high, and I could just see the sea beyond my back bedroom window. And in the sea beyond it was a memory of me and my mother, and she dipped me up and down in the waves, blond hair blowing and her laughing, never letting me go, and my father was in the fishing boat up ahead waving, and the sun was setting and my brother was with him, and all around was color and so much sweetness I couldn’t keep. I remember the tide sweeping in and out and I was not afraid. I was never afraid then.
Being dead, I can tell you this: your heart is all you can bring over, who you loved dearly. Just love, that’s all. So, I watch them sometimes in my heart, my family. I watch the father and brother I left, although I can’t be there: my father who was sixty years a fisherman now pumping gas at a station in Rarchland, my brother at that restaurant near my playing ground by the sea. I’d like to see my home again.
I now know things that old women can’t remember, what all the dead girls know. I know the secrets of the earth and have no one to tell. Wishbone never did make it to Florida, just to Rarchland like me, just eleven miles outside of Eden, like me, only now he sells meth out of a trailer on Henro Street. He’s a junkie still, never made it to Florida to find the grave of his mother. My father never stopped loving my mother, kept a candle burning in a mason jar in his bedside window for as long as I knew. I think of that when I remember the last words Wishbone said to me.
“It’s just skin and teeth, in the end, this body; what it does, don’t matter.”
And it doesn’t.
Category: Fiction, Short Story