Puller by Travis Dahlke
We sat outside with wet hair and no jackets, drinking milk as winter absorbed all the life from me. By morning, I had not caught a cold, and it couldn’t be faked. As we waited for his bus, my brother tapped the electric fence with a stick to check its currents. I envisioned deer catching themselves on fire because they were starved for cabbage heads, their ominously ignited antlers a harbinger of something worse. My brother flings his stick into the road, putting it right in the path of the bus, which comes and crushes it before plucking him up and carrying him away. I make a plan to intercept my report card from the mailbox and hide it in the ground, along with the seeds of some voracious shrub to cover the evidence. Failure is becoming inescapable and it will be harder to feign my acceptance of that. I could die under the cathode gas-glow of my local saloon.
My friends have all drank before, and when they do, it is this whole performance. Laughter bursts from them, forced out in ugly blooms. Ignoring ribbons that pollute my community, for a kid whose brain was crushed by his own car in the momentum of youth and stolen Pabst. The pipes under my street are being relaid by Spanish guys who watch Bernadette and I, with something between lust and instinctive protection. Just pull the alarm, she says. Call in a bomb threat or something.
None of this matters, because I’ll become a woman who lives out her life in an apartment of exposed brick walls with a fiance who works as a day trader. In between now and then, there is nothing. No adolescence, just this self-assured gal in my head. I see her in plum lipsticked Bath & Body Care clerks. I gotta buy a blazer. I need a job. In the now, there is only a Spanish final. There is the risk of summer school. A windowsill full of fly carcasses with the odor of lint jammed recreation center A/C.
Some bullies in flannel threaten to kill a kid whose locker is next to mine. It’ll be vacant soon, I suppose, and I’ll tell everyone that I’m a widow and wear a veil over my face. The clarinet I abandoned long ago will end up in a pawn shop and in someone else’s mouth.
But there is gold in these mountains. Lauryn Higgins-Clarke hears this from me at least twice a month. I am referring to some freshmen in our gym class, but I’m not sure what I mean. Posters of cartoon apples with cartoon worms define this. In my prayers, at real desks, I hope that HR skips right over my GPA. They see my affable personality only, and we exchange handshakes while they grin at the fabric of my shoulders. I’ll probably laugh about it later in the apartment during a dinner party with some friends. There’s an acacia salad bowl I have circled in a catalogue that I keep in my Spanish book. This baby was printed sometime in the late 80s. I know because all the pictures are of kids wearing oversized sweaters and side pony tails, un-ironically. It makes me sick to read dialogue from them. I refuse to be their voice. Their mannequin.
Señor Bernstein looks at me like one would admire an appliance that no longer works, that they don’t want to throw away yet. I’ve seen it before on adult faces. He says “pull” like “pool.” Bernadette and I repeat the swears we hear from overnight movie marathons like we’ve been saying them forever. I study a poster of a non-cartoon Sahara. I wonder aloud why gasoline comes from the desert and I recall sniffing a rag soaked in it with Larissa Hardine two years ago. She moved somewhere Omaha-ish. A tone sings out to a flood of waning students, scoffing up tiles until I’m by myself again. Through wired glass, I see exams being distributed.
The fossils of pipes will rot underground like cancerous intestines. I’m laying in my deathbed, except it’s not the girl with the auburn hair kept in place by a high, centered bun. She is simple and made formless by a shear nightgown. Jowls melting into my neck like some kind of bloodhound. There is no city. I am boxed in by calendar pages that stay thumbtacked into the drywall.
“Some fires that you start have to be fake,” I wheeze to my grandkids. My nose is wet. I think that cold is finally starting to set in. Then I think about everything that happens between now and then and it just fills me with hot, false hope.
Travis Dalhke‘s work has previously appeared in Five Quarterly, Sediments Literary-Arts Journal, The Tishman Review, Noble/Gas Qtly, and “Love on the Road 2013″ (Malinki Press).
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