J a n u a r y   2 0 0 4

Guest Writer

Maybe they can rebuild you yet
Girl afraid
by Edward Morris Jr.

n the front room, Phaedra Carter stares out the bay window of her aunt's huge old rambling ranch house. The yard is a blasted heath of gray cracked soil, sparse yellow grass and pine straw. Above it, the ominous gray sky is three shades lighter than her eyes.

Like sluggish blacksnakes shrugging off a long winter sleep, her ponytail has begun to slip its moorings. Her pullover rides low on one scarecrow shoulder where the flesh has only just begun to grow back after a year.

"You're still too thin," the doctors down at the free clinic tell her. But she eats like a horse nowadays, and sleeps eight hours a night. And she has more energy now than she's had since memory permits.

Around the fire of her eyes lies scorched earth in phosphorescent skin, and her cheekbones still have not lost the sunken edge. ("Tall wind'd blow ye down," her daddy was fond of saying, before they cut her off.)

But, by God, it's day 375 and she's sober. It feels so incurably strange to her to be back in the frying pan without the grease that was her poison of choice.

Phaedra has no God, no Higher Power from the NA meetings; she skates through on bare will and aversion therapy. And yet when the phone rings, something tells her exactly who it is.

"To what do I owe the honuh, suh?" she says in an icy mock-Scarlett drawl. Her voice is cold and compacted, a voice that had known everything about 19 before it ever hit 12.

Her clammy hand latches to the phone. The small thumb stretches, instinctively searching for the plunger of the syringe. Some habits never die.

She crosses her blue-jeaned legs in search of comfort, a constant search for which her aching nerves overcompensate. That search used to end in the shooting galleries downtown. Now, the ends are open, but every cell still struggles with the same impulse.

Phaedra shifts the side-hack of Wrigley's Spearmint to just between cheek and gum around the razor wire of her tongue. But her ex sounds backed against the wall, in between the lines of his drunken mumble that has changed pitch.

"Don't you hang up on me." The voice swallows hard, the sound of it ringing in a skinny chicken neck. "Get down here as soon's ye can." Again, the swallowing sound. "I'd be obliged."

"Ten minutes." Phaedra rolls her eyes.

y the time Phaedra gets to the Claypool farm, she is mostly okay. The chickens are everywhere, breaking the brooding calm of the gravel dooryard. Looks like it's going to come a gully-buster, and she wants to be inside when it does. No matter what.

The chickens move silently, fearfully, eyes downcast. The storm is playing hell with their heads. Phaedra's aunt says that it's the deathwatch, too, that shuts birds up like that, and then they raise hell when the soul goes on to the next life. That is a little over her ken, but Phaedra can sense a lot that is familiar in the silence outside the farmhouse.

Her eyes drift round that dull, barren ground where lawn ornaments and Rhode Island hens run free. The steering wheel of a '58 Studebaker still hangs like alien wreckage in the dogwood tree out front, fallout from an Eisenhower flying saucer that bellied in after Pappy Claypool learned not to mix white lightning and Mexican mushrooms.

The car itself is gone. In its place, another barren patch of ground that had grown only shell casings and beer bottles since Pappy bought the farm and Buck took it over.

Phaedra leans the seat back, making her cigarette last. The storm coalesces in the west, out beyond the ugly scrub that barely hides the flat stretch of Route 41.

Cold, flat rain begins to fall like chandelier crystals, dancing on the roof of her pick-em-up truck. Buck's is bigger, a used half-ton with no back window and a rebel-flag plate on the front.

Behind his truck, the weathered stone farmhouse looms against the savage Georgia sky, unmoved by the lightning all around. Behind the dooryard, the roof of the old barn imploded decades back, left for the chickens now to run wild and peck for grubs in the beams.

With a deep sigh, Phaedra snuffs out her cigarette in the ashtray, opens her door, steps out and slams it shut.

She finds that her legs are shaking and rubbery as she forces the 13 steps up the walk and onto the porch, down the middle of the mangy front yard. Her sneakers crunch in the gravel, announcing her arrival.

The rain comes fast, in golf-ball-sized drops. Phaedra's hair sponges up the rain, leaving the drops it doesn't catch to spatter her sweater. Buck's old red bike leans against the banister like a whipped dog.

All this time ... and coming back: old ghosts with big guns stroke her spine with skeletal fingers of People, Places and Things atrophied without her – times, spaces and faces of ill repute left out there in the storm. Old memories show in the brush of her consciousness like the corpses of birds and rodents that a much younger Buck pegged with a BB gun back yonder, leaning in close to watch the light wink out of their eyes.

Phaedra has moved beyond this old, sad corner of time. She is learning all sorts of things at community college on the public till, and being a part-time go-fer right across the tracks from her aunt's. She is Keeping It Simple. She is living One Day At A Time. She is Letting Go.

But all that fades the second she moves onto the porch ... she is 17 and 30 pounds underweight ... and dope-sick like the time her blood pressure approached stroke potential and she rode the lightning like a catfish on the line, doing the fish dance on Buck's bedroom floor.

Dope-sick like the worst flu ever filtered through this storm. Her stomach is clenching and her skin crawls like fire and ice fighting for control. The ghosts heat, bend and crack her spine, reminding her of all the wonderful fun of the kick.

Though her eyes smart and sting, she cannot yet cry. Her sponsor told her it was seven years before she could, and best not to jump the gun.

Phaedra has begun to clear away the wreckage. But the house and grounds have brought back the Bad Old Days. Seems like it takes 10 minutes for her to reach out and twist the cold copper doorknob. The creak of the hinges is louder than God. The house still smells like a zoo.

"I ... I waited until about 10 minutes before I called ye," Buck says quietly and clearly from the shadowy parlor. His voice from the battered Barcalounger is childlike and dead, back in the megalopolis of piled mess. "But she ain't budged. Not since the last ..." He takes a deep breath but does not finish the sentence.

Phaedra's eyes are adjusting to the gloom. All she can see is red. She reaches for another cigarette.

"Well," she manages through clenched teeth, coming into the parlor and kicking back on the threadbare sofa as she peers at Buck from around the boxes of mail piled three deep on the coffee table. "Did you call the paramedics?"

Buck sighs and shakes his head, beady eyes glittering around that gigantic honker. He wears a T-shirt with sleeves cut off, tattered jeans and no shoes. The three-day growth of platinum stubble on his chinless face makes him look paradoxically younger. His eyes are somehow flattened, and in the old days when the two of them shot up in the back bedroom, he had told her deadpan that his mother had dropped him on his head.

"That's what I called you for." His eyes drop to the floor, and Phaedra realizes exactly what he is talking about. Her own eyes shine with flat praying mantis light, and she leans forward, gazing at him anxiously.

"Where have you been cookin' up?" she asks, but he is shaking his head very quickly. And the pain on his face makes her look closer.

She notices the oil slick of sweat that has made Buck glow with temporary color. He does not look good ... but better than Phaedra remembers. She notices the pile of dishes and Chinese food cartons piled by an empty shopping bag to take out to the sink, the overflowing ashtrays, the old Philco black-and-white ... and something else. A high, sharp smell hangs in the air, strong as battery acid in the room. She sniffs again. Jack Daniel's.

Her eyes grow wide in the roar of the rain.

"You been kickin' on y'own." Phaedra breathes softly. "How m–"

"Near 'bout a week now." Buck says defensively, holding up one hand, drained of emotion. "Switched to night crew, an' the stuporvisor is always loaded, so he ..." Buck reaches beside him. "He don't notice my, uh, substitute medication."

The liter bottle of Coca-Cola must be about half and half, Phaedra reckons by the way he tilts it back from the elbow.

"I appreciate this, baby. Truly I do."

"Don't call me that." Her eyes mirror the storm through the cheap blinds. "Let me get this straight now. She ..."

But Phaedra's brain is vapor-locking. She can't even form the association. The hard way dances just within her grasp, and she hears herself finish the sentence:

"Your mama's dead?"

Buck sets the bottle down. "Sounds that way. She ain't been up around beggin' me to share this–" he holds the bottle up briefly. "Yet. Cain't ..." He sighs. "Cain't hear her snorin', neither. She'd of been runnin' me ragged since six."

Phaedra begins cracking her knuckles. An old habit from detox. "You been in?"

He nods. "You ... well, go on an' see." He speaks with great effort through a locking jaw. "What ... what needs gotten rid of is in there."

Phaedra's blood is cold saline and the volume is up to 11 as she navigates her way through the gloom, back around a little hall with a linen closet. Buck is looking at his feet, visibly alcohol-amped by withdrawal into a ground-glass kiddie pool of Duh.

She dares herself to look back into his dilated eyes.

"Each one teach one to reach one," she whispers like a catechism. "Took a lotta guts callin' me down here, boy. Maybe they can rebuild you yet."

Her sneakers pad the patterned path of old Hot Rod magazines and malt liquor bottles with red and blue bulls on them. She stands before the faded sea-green door, totally out of place with the faux-maple paneling around the doorframe and, she knows, inside ... as the knob turns.

In days of old when they were bold enough to party in that house, Phaedra could often hear Mama Claypool screaming nonsense at The 700 Club. She'd been shuffled around from detoxes to subsidized housing to an old folks' home, but like the fabled cat, she always came back. She was getting close to 70 now, and after a while the booze seemed to have mummified her.

Any given moment in those days, the door would creak wide and she'd burst forth like a fossilized debutante done by George Romero. With extra cream cheese. Didn't let her failing eyesight stop her from putting on the mortuary levels of makeup, either.

Mama Claypool was pretty far gone and she hated doctors. Buck had said she was looking awful yella, and wondered about some stuff, but he was too lost in his own hall of mirrors.

"Soon as I come out that door, you call 'em."

"'Kay," Buck says from the dark.

The grapevine in town is wide, and Phaedra knows enough about Mama Claypool between first and second hands. Behind her, a single tiny bulb burns in the crystal chandelier above the oily, dusty hide of the dining room table loaded down with carburetor rebuild kits and dusty envelopes of old snapshots.

This time, it does not take half as long for her to open the door.

"Y'might–" Buck starts to say. He stops when he hears the creak.

Even more than the cigarettes and cat piss, Phaedra smells something quite familiar in this room. She smelled it in mid-seizure before the paramedics broke down the door. It is the smell of the tunnel's end drawing close, the smell of Lights Out and Game Over. She pulls the door to, registering the shape beneath the acres of flannel crazyquilt as no more than an ornamental piece of furniture.

Her other eyes, the ones from the Bad Old Days, tickle the infrared spectra of the room, searching for the aural traces of junk like cold feelers through the dust.

An olive-drab cartridge box from Nam pokes out a corner from beneath the bed on the right.

Phaedra actually sees herself stepping forward, kneeling at the cooling feet and snapping open both clasps.

She sees herself taking out the cut-down suspender, tying off at the right bicep and finding one of many veins that had been retread in that long year. Her will is not her own, but drawn in red flowing poppy shades to the cheap Becton-Dickson insulin syringe.

She sees the shot halfway home ... and then the lightning in her brain as she jackknifes over the back of a chair. She sees Buck in the other room, wringing his hands in that silence where two went in and none came out.

She sees herself do this thing.

And she does not do this thing.

Phaedra does kneel, but quickly opens the box ... and pauses.

Buck's antique steel works, and a pack of needles from the free exchange in Athens.

And four packets of heroin with silver smiley-faces on them. Dusty, but not even tasted. She–

Buck sighs from the gloom beyond the doorway.

"She was movin' around more'n usual, went in back and was sneakin' through my gear." He sounds resigned and sick. "I found m'geedis-box gone, guess you saw. Nurse only comes by but once a week. County said that's all they'll pay for." His breathing is loud as a vacuum cleaner. "I went in to wake her up, an' she's just–"

"Shut up, once." Phaedra is peeling back the crazyquilt, laying one hand on the wattled old neck.

And Mama Claypool springs bolt-upright, her eyes like a deer in headlights, making a whistling, gasping sound.

Phaedra steps back, folding her arms and tapping her feet. After a moment, the muscular contraction subsides and the ornamental furniture returns to its upright and locked position.

Without a word, she grabs up the cartridge box and walks out into the rain, trudging past the barn. The woods are thick back here, and the ground falls away into shale outcrops and scratch pine.

Glancing at the sleeping hulk of the Studebaker, Phaedra whales the box as far into the woods as it will go.

She is just coming back when red and blue light up the dooryard gloom.

Phaedra steps forward into that light. For the first time in her life, she is not scared at all.

E-mail Edward at dante3000@gmail.com, and don't miss his previous work.

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