American Spirit

In a cabin in the foothills above the lake, Frankie cut his sister’s hair in the frosted wood-smoke evening of the first snowfall. Cal’s hair swayed long and yellow against the back of the chair, and he ran his fingers through the strands to catch at knots. When he looked past her to the window, the early darkness threw his reflection back at him. His face hovered above hers and the navy blue of his jacket fell between them like a shadow. Frankie leaned forward and picked the scissors up from the table, asking as he did so, “Shouldn’t your hair be wet for this?”

“No,” Cal said. “That’s just the way Mom used to do it.”

The scissors cut a crooked line along the nape of her neck, and her hair curled by his feet. Frankie’s fingers were cold and clumsy as he stripped loosened strands from the line of shearing. His extremities beat painfully as they warmed. He had been out walking around the lake when she got there. “I need you to cut my hair,” Cal had called out to him as he stood in the driveway surveying her car. He had known she was coming, but he had not expected it. “There’s supposed to be over two feet of snow tonight,” he had said as she hugged him. “I know. We need to go to the store,” she’d replied. The kitchen contained crackers, a bag of rice, and a few cans of beans, mushrooms, and black olives. There were hot dogs, smoked fish, and radishes in a cooler Frankie left packed with snow on the back porch.

When he finished, her hair covered the toes of his boots and he stomped his feet as if to rid them of dust or snow. Cal’s chin fell to her chest with the unexpected lightness of her head. In the window her eyes were closed. Frankie leaned forward and quickly pressed his face to her bare neck, his nose cold and wet as a dog’s.

Cal started and the hand raised to linger in the lost length of her hair cuffed his ear. She hit him with the familial ease of older siblings. Frankie whimpered and let the scissors drop to the floor. His eyes smarted. Crouching to retrieve the scissors, he sat back on his heels and closed his eyes tightly. His mother had slapped him across the face once when he was nineteen, and the sting of flesh on flesh had made the bile rise in his throat the same way. Cal turned to raise an eyebrow to his silence.

“Should I call mom?” Frankie said softly.

“No,” she said, shaking her head.

She knelt to sweep the hair from the floor around Frankie’s ankles, then put her hands on his shoulders and stood to get her jacket. As she put on her coat the ends of Cal’s hair brushed at the brown suede collar. By the time she had laced her boots, Frankie was watching her dry-eyed from the floor. He had been alone at the cabin for several months, but she lived more easily there than he did.

“Get up,” she said. Frankie shook his head but he got up. Cal walked down the driveway and looked at the road. The snow was starting to stick. As she put the key in the door of her rusted-out car she turned to watch Frankie as he followed her outside. “Happy Birthday,” she whispered, playing the appropriate tune on the roof of the car with tapping fingers, counting to twenty-five.

Frankie had left the light on to keep strangers away. In silhouette by the door he was narrow and fully-grown. He had been slim and strong when he was a boy, with muscles like knots in a rope, but the last time she had seen him, nearly a year ago, he was carrying extra weight around his waist. The new thickness at his hips and belly had made his legs seem longer and thinner. This tenderness had made him feel like a partial stranger. He had walked with the care of young girls, self-conscious of their elbows brushing against the soft parts of their stomachs. Now he was as angular as he had ever been. It was the smoking.

He couldn’t help but pace while he smoked, and he walked the trails to the lake every afternoon, slipping at the edges of the ice and looking for fish caught below the surface. In dead winter he knew the places where rocks studded the ground and where the vernal pools formed deceivingly deep craters in the snow. In the mornings he dragged trees from the neighboring lot and cut them to burn. The lot had been cleared years ago by a family that abandoned their plans when the patriarch died in a late summer car accident. Everyone said that Everett Powell was an alcoholic cuckolded to drunkenness, but their mother said he had died for the sin of sodomy. The clearing had filled with low brush, and felled pines and hemlocks lay scattered across the small field. Frankie pulled logs from the weeds and split them for firewood because it felt good to sweat over the axe, which was dull enough to be decorative.

In the car, Frankie pulled his collar up around his chin and watched the vapor of his breath dissipate over the orange glow of the dashboard lights. Cal turned on the radio as they left the driveway, and the static melted into orchestral holiday pop. Frankie spun the knob and turned the music up to a nearly unbearable volume, distorting the sound until the car floor thrummed. Cal looked straight ahead, squinting at the slick road and the snow flashing in the spotlight of the high beams.

They drove through the landscape of their youth. The valley was a summer place where few people live year round, and those who did lived in town. The streams ran dry in July and through the winter months until the spring snowmelt cascaded down from the mountains. The ridge cast a rain shadow over the valley, and houses scattered down the slopes to coalesce around the lake. The buildings that ringed the lake ranged from gutted shacks filled with beer bottles and fungi to three room camps with electricity and shingled roofs. The volunteer fire service lined the mountain roads with thin, tall poles so that the plows could find their way in winter. A general store supplied everything from ice cream and playing cards to milk and tampons. Every summer was reverse culture shock when tourists bolting to the backwaters brought new clothes, new cars, and new songs, filling the summer cottages with music that echoed across the water.

They passed the first of the buildings that marked the edge of what they referred to as Town. A small white house was surrounded by a half acre of cleared land, where the Ostlers used to keep horses for the winter. Two towns over was a track and a well-established contingent of gamblers, and the Ostlers raced horses in the summer. In the snow the animals were shaggy and shy, but by June their coats would be thin and the veins along their legs and nostrils would stand out against smooth damp fur. The muscles of their shoulders, back, and hindquarters were larger on the left, because they only ran around the track in one direction. Frankie and Cal used to watch the horses, and sometimes Frankie threw things at them: clumps of grass and sticks, but never rocks. He liked to watch their muscles twitch, their ears flip back, their thousand pounds jolt into motion with the flick of his wrist. The horses were all bays and chestnuts except for one wall-eyed appaloosa with hocks that clicked when it walked. In his adolescent fantasies, Frankie had imagined what it would be like to live between blue grey skies and wind whipped plains with his legs held firmly to the flanks of spotted horses. Watching the old appaloosa, he saw boys whose blood beat sweet and strong as sagebrush and ponies with brown eyes and thick fur. In the summer the ponies’ fur stuck to their calves and thighs with sweat until the boys were half animal. Frankie never touched the racehorses.

Cal turned into the parking lot of the general store. It resembled a convenience store but sold eggs, lettuce, and shampoo in addition to gum and potato chips. Frankie got out of the car with a city boy slide of hands over pockets: wallet and keys. He had neither. Cal had taken the house key, and she’d said she wanted to pay for food. She had offered to make him a cake, but they both knew the power would go out before she could bake anything. He put his hands in his pockets, standing between the car and a pile of dirty snow shoveled aside to make enough room in the lot for the owner’s car and one other. Frankie leaned into the open door.

“I have to pee,” he said. Cal nodded and he stalked towards the port-a-potty at the back of the lot. “Fuck,” he said, once the blue plastic door was closed behind him. He could only see enough to know that the lid of the toilet was raised and he opted for that over the invisible urinal he knew was to his left. “I have to take a piss,” Frankie muttered, voice low. He shook his head, adjusted his stance. Bowlegged, cowboy-esque, he listened to the sound of hot piss hitting ice. He thought there was something about the blue liquid in the tank that should have kept it from freezing. When he was a boy he had peed onto the frozen surface of the lake thinking he could make a hole in the ice deep enough to see a fish through. The dogs had sniffed at the shallow yellow divot before loping back into the trees to plow their narrow noses through the snow in search of rabbits and squirrels.

Inside, Cal was getting milk from the low refrigerator cases that were set below the long glass windows of the storefront. They had both spent summers working there, so he knew she was pulling cartons from the back. The milk placed towards the front of the case was the oldest, already expired. Ownership had changed hands since then, but practices likely had not. Frankie walked to the back and wandered from one end of the store to the other while perusing the selection of cigarettes behind the front counter. He had good eyesight, and he had learned to recognize the packaging of American Spirit from a good twenty feet. The linoleum floor squeaked under his wet shoes as he stepped over each off-white square to the next off-grey one. Cal would come get him when she was done. She would look at him without speaking. Her eyes were soft and brown but they gave a look that said the dog just died.

Cal walked to the counter and laid out milk, eggs, cereal, waxy-looking apples, and other staples. Her hair was bright and it brushed the collar of her coat the way he remembered their mother’s falling against that same brown suede when he was still shorter than her. The man behind the cash register was in his forties, with a graying mustache that obscured his mouth. He had been reading the newspaper but now he started ringing up Cal’s items, and Frankie could guess the way the man looked at her. He would know she was a local kid by the way she pronounced the word “milk,” but he would be puzzled by his inability to recognize her. And he would be wishing he had looked up as soon as he had heard the door open, so that he could have watched her as she walked around the store and seen the way she squinted at tomato soup cans or stood on her toes to get a bag of coffee.

In high school the boys used to talk about Cal. Sometimes they would fall silent when Frankie walked by in the hall, but other times they would raise their voices and enunciate her name as if to shame him for having a sister who didn’t want his protection. Long hair and long legs, quiet as a stalked rabbit. Miss California, the Sunshine State. As if she were from the land of redwood forests and beaches, a golden-haired chocolate-eyed backwoods fairy queen. Frankie never asked Cal if she knew all of the things they said about her. Cal did not tell Frankie what she knew they called him. Backwoods fairy queen. Because he lived year-round where they kept summer cabins, because he trapped spiders in his cupped hands to carry them outside, because he liked to draw. Because he went to States for cross country senior year of high school and let Bill Parker kiss him on the mouth in the trees when he stopped to retie his shoes during their cool down and everyone knew. He and Bill could have gone to Regionals, but the coach told them the school didn’t have the funding. Coach had shaken his head and leaned in the doorway of his office saying “Sorry boys,” with his hands in his pockets and his eyes on their feet. Bill’s ears had reddened and his neck had flushed pink. Standing in the hall looking at the closed door Bill shook his own head, his long shock of hair brushing across his eyebrows forelock-like. “Sorry,” Bill muttered, “I’m sorry.”

“You from nearby?” the man with the mustache asked, leaning forwards, lower lip barely visible even open-mouthed. Cal nodded.

“You don’t look it,” he said, squinting at her, beer belly pressing against the edge of the counter.

Cal shrugged. “I grew up on the Mountain,” she said. She swallowed the vowels of “Mountain,” like all the kids she had gone to school with from kindergarten through twelfth grade.

The Mustache put his hands on the turquoise formica, square thumbs pointing to one another. He had finished scanning Cal’s purchases and fixed his gaze on her features.

“I think I’d have known if you grew up on the Mountain,” he said. The Mustache smiled and his eyes outlined the parts of her body he was interested in. “But I could take you ice fishing if you’d like,” he said. “I’m a guide, and I know all the best local spots.”

“How much?” Cal asked. The Mustache’s brow rose and his fingertips lifted off of the counter as if it were velvet he did not want to crush. How much, for a little bit of privacy.

“How much,” she repeated. “For the groceries.”

The Mustache leaned in again, “I’ve got a little cabin up on the Mountain,” he declared, vowels stretched and consonants enunciated in a smooth whisper. “You ever gutted a fish?”

“How much,” Cal said.

Frankie walked down the aisle to the stand beside Cal, putting his right hand on her shoulder.

“Add a pack of American Spirits, would you?” he said to the man’s mustache. The man looked up to meet Frankie’s gaze after a pause.

“American Spirit?” he said.

“Cigarettes,” Frankie intoned, tilting his head to the rack behind the man.

“Filters?” the Mustache asked, turning to the display.

“Yeah,” Frankie replied. In the window they were a nice young couple framed against the darkness by the florescent lights above the counter. Their bodies were properly easy together as he let his right hand fall from her shoulder and brush against the back of her coat. He pushed his left hand deeper into his pocket and Cal paid in cash. As they took their bags from the counter, Frankie stared the man down, and the Mustache seemed to grow shorter as he settled into the embarrassment of his age.

In the car Cal tucked her hair behind her ears and peered behind her as she backed out of the lot, as if there might be other cars on the road.

“So when do I get to pick out my ring?” she asked.

“Whenever you want, baby” he replied. “Tomorrow is as good a day as any.”

“Oh dear,” she said. “But this storm is going to hit hard and the roads won’t be cleared for positively ages.”

“Ah, well maybe next year.”

Cal flicked the high beams back on and the snow flared out in front of them, falling thickly on the road. Frankie ran his hands through his hair and wiped the snowmelt on his pant leg. The wind had picked up, and whistled through the deteriorated seal of the passenger side window.

“I bet you a dollar the power’s going to go out,” Cal said.

“No way in hell it doesn’t. I didn’t grow up on the Mountain for nothing,” Frankie said, mimicking the Mustache’s pronunciation.

“Oh, that fucker,” Cal said.

. . . . .

            After dinner Cal lit a fire. Frankie was sitting on the floor in front of the stove, picking at the loose strands of the rug and drinking milk from a gold-rimmed beer glass, when the lights went out. The darkness was absolute silence and the fire flared yellow and white on Cal’s face.

“If this lasts a few days we’ll have to drain the pipes,” she said.

“Yeah,” Frankie nodded.

“The pump will have a couple of gallons primed.”

“I know,” Frankie said.

“We should fill the bathtub,” Cal said.

“I know,” Frankie said, sipping his milk. “Do you think this glass was Dad’s?” he asked, drawing his knees up and holding them close with one arm.

They both stared into the fire. Cal shrugged and stood, making her way to the bathroom with her hands brushing carefully at furniture and walls. The bathroom was off the kitchen, along with their parents’ bedroom. Until they left for college they had each slept in their own room in the upstairs loft. When they were children Cal used to get up in the night and make her way to the bathroom without waking up. Frankie would startle from sleep to find her standing in his room. He told her that she turned into a ghost at night and haunted him.

In the bathroom, Cal sat on the edge of the tub and turned on both taps. In the small room the sound of rushing water echoed off the tile. Cal put her hand on the cool rim of the bathtub and waited to see if the rising water would reach her fingertips. There should be enough water in the pipes to fill the tub halfway. The power used to go out every few weeks in winter, and with nearly every snowfall they had missed a day or two of school before the roads were cleared enough that they could get down into the valley. Two or three times they had stayed with friends in town when a big storm was predicted, but usually they waited out the snow as if compelled by fate.

The apartment several states away that Cal shared with a couple she knew from college would be dimly lit. People might be dancing there, getting drunk and hopeful, spilling into the dark cold city streets and either beautiful or tired under the lights depending on how you looked at them. There was a boy there she hadn’t met, Charlie’s friend from upstate who was moving to the city. Maybe he would write her poetry, Charlie had mocked, telling her not to leave for the weekend. She had asked what kind of poetry. “Oh,” Charlie had said, “terrible poetry, the worst possible kind. And he will say ‘making love,’ never ‘fucking.’”

            Even without heat the cabin felt warmly of home. She noticed smells in the apartment: pasta fallen on the stovetop and burned during dinner, car exhaust and cooking oil through open windows, pot on the weekends, but the air here smelled only of winter, of cold and wood smoke and childhood. The water in the tub reached her fingertips, lukewarm.

. . . . .

            “Why milk?” Cal said, sitting down by the fire again.

“I’m quitting beer,” Frankie replied.

“I think the glass was Dad’s,” Cal said. “Mom got rid of all the others but she thought that one had class once the logo rubbed off.”

“Huh,” Frankie nodded, running his fingers around the mouth of the glass, which he had left by his feet. “I was going to call her today.”

Cal shook her head. “I don’t think she would’ve picked up anyways.”

“You think?” Frankie turned away from the fire, fingers leaving the glass. “Even though it’s my birthday?”

“Especially because it’s your birthday.”

“You know you look like she did when she was young,” Frankie said. “I found some old photo albums in their bedroom and there’s this one of her that looks exactly like you. Except your hair is shorter now than hers was. Or is, I guess. I haven’t seen her in a while.” He pulled bits of lint from his socks, legs crossed. “Five years maybe. Not since Dad, right?”

“When she hit you,” Cal nodded. “Her hair is still pretty long.”

“That’s her old jacket, right?” Frankie said. “The one you were wearing earlier?”

“She gave it to me last year,” Cal said. “Doesn’t need it in Arizona.”

“You really think she wouldn’t have picked up?” Frankie asked. He was biting at his lower lip and he put one elbow down on his thigh to hold his face in his palm while he looked at Cal. The way she moved her mouth and used her body set her at odds with their mother, even if the basic structure was the same. Their mother had light eyes.

Cal shook her head, and he turned away.

“Really,” he said.

“Really,” she echoed.

The fire popped and they both flinched. “I’ll get more wood,” Frankie said. He knocked over the glass with his knee as he stood. The milk at the bottom drained onto the rug before Cal righted it. She rubbed at the stain with her sleeve and shrugged. Frankie picked up the glass and carried it to the counter. He rifled through the drawer below the sink until he found a flashlight. He took the cigarettes from the grocery bag on the counter and went outside, pulling the door closed tightly behind him.

The wood was stacked high on the porch, tucked beneath the overhang and covered with a blue tarp that was coated in a dusting of snow. Frankie shook a cigarette out of the pack and put it in his mouth, but he didn’t light it. In college he only smoked when he was drunk, but he wasn’t drinking anymore and he still smoked. Only a few a day though, usually just one or two or four, but never a whole pack. He turned the flashlight on, and its beam spun out into the trees while the snow whirled down. He could hear the snow falling. The powder must be two feet deep on the lake by now, and the small fish would be in the warmer water along the bottom, the trout only six feet under. The temperatures had been below freezing for several weeks and the ice was thick enough to drive a truck over. Frankie shivered through his sweatshirt, and with stiff fingers he pulled the tarp back and began transferring wood from the pile to the bin they left upside down by the door. He was twenty-five, older than the degrees Fahrenheit. He was several months out of a job and his mother still wouldn’t pick up the phone on his birthday. He had kissed Bill Parker, not the other way around, in the parking lot of the church between his father’s funeral and the interment. His mother saw them, and when the casket was in the ground and he tried to hug her, she had slapped him in the face.

He filled the bin, his arms warming and his hands growing colder. His father had been dead for five years and the last boy he slept with had told him afterwards that he did not compare favorably with other men. It had been his first time, after all, which the smirking redheaded boy had known. The bin was stacked high and Frankie let the unlit cigarette fall in among the wood. He carried the bin inside and put the wood down by the stove. Cal had found the photo album and she sat with the book spread open on her lap, flipping through the pages.

“What time is it?” she asked.

“Nearly eleven,” he said.

“I found the one that looks like me. It doesn’t really look that much like me but I guess I see it.” She fingered the pages, then turned to a section marked with a sticky note that came loose as soon as she touched it. Frankie sat close to his sister and looked over her shoulder though he had seen all of the pictures before. Their parents were getting married, standing by the fireplace in their mother’s parents’ house, eating cake, dancing. They could have been anyone’s parents.

“Did they love each other in the end?” Frankie asked.

“I’m not sure I would even know what that looks like,” Cal said. “They liked each other more when we were younger. Maybe we ruined them,” she laughed. “Or maybe they just didn’t love like other people.”

Cal kept turning pages, but the book ended before she was born. She closed the album and let both hands rest on the cover. “Frankie,” she said, “have you ever been in love?”

Frankie sighed and lay down on his back, stretching out long so that his feet rested beneath the kitchen table and his head was only a foot from the stove.

“How about I tell you a story about a fish,” Frankie said. He paused while Cal rolled her eyes. Some of their parents’ worst fights had been about fishing, until Pollock on a Friday night was enough to ruin the weekend. Their mother would put the fish on the table as if she was not expecting their father’s eyes to widen and then narrow as he said, “Now let me tell you a story about a fish.”

“I took this guy and his kid out to catch trout one summer,” Frankie said. “The kid was a little younger than I was, and his dad was some hotshot lawyer or analyst or something. We were fishing for a couple of hours and had a few hours to go when a storm front moved in. We could see the lightning from miles off and the clouds rolled in fast. The guy got scared and so did the kid. By the time it started pouring they were both in a dead panic about being the tallest thing in the middle of the lake, so I had them sit in the bottom of the boat and hold their rods straight up in the air. I told them that because the poles weren’t metal they would make a reverse lightning rod. And they believed me. I think that all anyone is hoping is that they won’t ever really die. But they all do.”

“Frankie?” Cal said.

He latticed his fingers over his eyes. “This isn’t something we talk about,” he groaned.

“We could start,” she said.

“Do you want to talk about why Mom won’t even pick up the fucking phone when I call now?” Frankie intoned. “Because sure as hell it isn’t that I quit my consulting job.”

“Sure, Frankie,” Cal replied. She put the album on the floor and lay down next to her brother.

“No,” he said, shaking his head with his hands covering his face. Cal poked him in the ribs and his hands jerked impulsively to his stomach.

“Are you five years old?” he said. “No, that was my answer. No, I have never been in love with anyone.”

“Oh,” she said. “Oh. I’m sorry.”

“Okay, what about you.”

“Well, me neither I guess.”

“Really?” Frankie asked. “But you’ve dated guys. You’re almost twenty-seven.”

“I’ve never been in love with any of them.”

“What?” Frankie replied. “What were you then?”

“I liked them. I was fond of them.”

“Fond?” he asked, incredulous.

“An unbearable tenderness. Especially for Tyler. Sometimes he would lean against the wall after dinner, with his face in front of the window and his head turned to watch people walk by on the street. The way his back curved and the way the light hit his nose made me so unbearably fond of him that my chest would get tight. But you can’t ache for someone that way and be fucking him at the same time.”

“Boys aren’t like poetry.” He laughed at the idea.

“Well of course not, but they are in my head.”

They were quiet and the snow fell thickly and the darkness was silent.

“I miss the dogs,” Cal said.

“I’m not a virgin,” Frankie replied.

“What?” Cal said.

“Don’t sound so surprised.”

“I’m not.”

“Yes you are. You should be anyways. It only happened a few months ago.”

“With who?”

“Don’t worry about it, he was a dick.” Cal laughed, and Frankie hit her across the stomach.

“He really was though,” Frankie murmured. They listened to the empty roads under deafening snow, so quiet now that they had lived in cities and the sound of ambulances in the night had grown familiar to the point of comfort.

“Why did you have to cut your hair today?” Frankie whispered.

“Because it was your birthday,” Cal said. “You were always trying to cut my hair when we were kids. You chased me around in the woods with scissors once begging me to let you cut just a little bit.”

They lay side by side in silence and the power came back on.






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