Updated: Nov 7, 2020
You carry your heartlands with you.
It is warm and too warm and dry against the white wet of the ground, it is a roar that breaks and chokes on its own sound with a still-small hand immersed in white rough knuckles and a man that always smells like the way that cardboard tastes, he sings at night when the whole world goes dark except the glittering porcelain things that spin and make laughing sounds against the window while stars button up the nighttime and keep the sunlight out, there is a warm bottle that goes cold while the house sleeps, full of white liquid like the white wet ground that shrivels into brown grass as the warm and too-warm of the red hot roaring swallows a place we lived in once.
When Aunt Mimi decides to stay, my new room is painted gray and foreign, soft under the last yellow light in an otherwise florescent house. I sleep on a bed that once belonged to my grandmother. It still smells like Chanel No. 5, which my mother says she wore until the day she died, and then wore again at the funeral.
The train is loud when it passes, going north. I run to the edge of the property to watch dark baubles of lit cigarettes rattle by, and dream of being on it.
The cicadas get loud in August. They cover up the sounds of everything else.
In the new house, my grandmother lives upstairs. Her bedroom door smells like my mother’s hands, the burning paper she balances between two fingers. I get a pillow on my birthday with my name sewn on it and they say that it’s from her. I don’t know what she looks like because she’s always sleeping and I’m not allowed to wake her up.
Before sunup I collect eggs and bring them into the kitchen. My mother washes them in the kitchen sink and leaves two on the counter when the rest go into the fridge. She boils them just long enough so that when you peel the shell off the white is gummy but the yolk still runs like melt. She calls them “heartland eggs.”
“I thought heartlands were places that don’t touch the ocean,” I say, sucking up dribbling yolk off my fingers.
My mother hands me a napkin with little Christmas bells on it. “Anywhere that nobody but you can touch, darlin,” she says.
The day my grandmother dies, Grandpa goes into the room I’m not allowed into and makes a sound like fire eating wood. Then he gets into the old Volkswagen and drives away in it.
My mother’s hand is too heavy on my head when she pats it. She says, “Don’t tell Grandpa.”
She is sitting in the bathtub with my Aunt Mimi, and they have their feet propped up on the soap shelf. The room smells burnt and like the vacuum. The window is open. The curtain is caught between the frame and the screen.
I ask, “Did something burn in here?”
My Aunt Mimi shrieks a pearled string of laughter, flopping back against her side of the tub and sliding down, down into a puddle at the bottom. She’s swallowed by her enormous knitted sweaters and the scarf she wears even in the summer. She is sitting on the shower curtain and the rings are straining to keep their hold on the fabric.
“Just my brain cells,” giggles my mother, and my Aunt Mimi says, “As if you ever had any!”
My grandfather reads me stories about princesses and the heroes that rescue them. There’s a room upstairs where my grandmother is bone skinny and paper-colored, but music always spills out behind the closed door. I’m not allowed to go in. My Grandpa’s allowed, but he doesn’t.
My mother balances a tiny glass something on the bathroom floor and little burnt flakes fall out.
“Dad says Lunch,” I tell them.
My Aunt Mimi blows a long breath out her nose and says, “Well, shit, I could eat a whole turkey. We should get the neighbors to shoot the ones down by the barn.”
My mother leans her head against the lip of the bath. Her feet are still in the soap dish. She smells as burnt as the bathroom but her hands are strong like leather. She always brings food to the room I’m not allowed in.
“Yeah,” she agrees, her voice like the shower curtain tearing off the rings. “Yeah. A whole turkey.”
My father drinks amber liquid out of coffee mugs. It tastes like fire makes your eyes feel. I know because when he burps into his fist and locks the bathroom door I pull the mug down and take the liquid into my mouth, sloshing it around over my teeth.
“It’s not that much longer,” my mother tells him every night after dinner, when my ear is pressed to the thin wood floor and everybody else is sleeping. I think she means about Aunt Mimi, who always smells like burnt gardens.
“You been saying that since she moved in,” my father answers, and his voice is a rumble like the tumble dryer on low when it’s got all our denim in it. “I didn’t sign up for this.”
“Sign up for what? My mother wasting away in an upstairs bedroom while my father plays backgammon and leaves clumps of hair on the couch? Because neither did I, asshole.”
My father doesn’t answer. Then he says, “Jesus, Maryann,” and nothing else.
Grandpa comes back in the back of a police car. His whole body shakes and he can’t see past his extended arm. They say they found him on the side of the highway, sitting on a suitcase and playing the banjo. The car’s engine was bleeding smoke.
“He’s pretty good,” one of the policemen jokes.
Aunt Mimi sits with her arms around Grandpa’s shoulders. He holds my face in his hands and kisses it with a grizzled mouth that smells like dirt. “Can’t play nothing sad on the banjo,” he says, and tugs on my hair. “Remember that.”
William Hughes Derenger III is the name written in dark ink on his shoulder, but he says everyone just calls him Billy. He’s got eyebrows thick as my thumb and messy as my bedroom. I want to smooth them with my fingertips. I want to know what the crevices in his lips feel like on my hands. He’s got a tattoo skittering down his side that looks like it’s moving when he bends down to lift a bale of hay.
Aunt Mimi bumps my hips with hers.
“Too old for you,” she says, and winks like she doesn’t mean it.
My mother tells me that this is the miracle of life, and I think yeah, okay, but how come I have to wake up at three a.m. to see it?
It’s cold in the barn and my hands feel like rolled dice in my gloves, hard and certain around the edges, unlucky. The vet hasn’t gotten here yet; the vet is always late when it’s cold because the roads back here get icy and dark. My mother has on her work gloves and Aunt Mimi has her hands wrapped in dishrags because her work gloves have holes in them.
“We’re naming her Alexa,” my mother says, and smiles at the Mexican barn aid with his hands full of placenta.
“What do you think?” asks Alex, whose real name is Alejandro, who has to really think about it before he can wipe Mexico off his tongue. Sometimes, to tease, he calls me patroncita.
Alexa tries to stand. Her legs are wibbly wobbly and she blinks likes she’s afraid her eyes are going to pop out if she leaves them open too long. Her mother whinnies and shoves her with her nose until she finds her balance and I say, “Yeah,” I say, “It’s pretty cool,” I say, “What are you going to do with all that leftover placenta?”
“I know a woman in Morelos,” says Alex, the placenta hanging off his fingers like the yolk from a heartland egg, soft and unprepared to be outside the walls it lives behind. “She ate it for luck.”
“I smoked yours,” says my mother.
“You did not,” Aunt Mimi laughs, peeling off her work gloves as the vet’s truck pulls in. Aunt Mimi always looks in the mirror before the vet gets here.
My mother laughs. “If it brings luck, maybe I should have,” she says.
“I’m sorry,” says my Dad, and I pretend to be asleep.
“I’m sorry, I love you,” and I believe him, but I pretend to be asleep.
“I’ll see you at Christmas, it’s okay, it’s just until December,” and I pretend to be asleep until I hear him sniff and feel his tentative fingers stroke my hair and then I say, “December’s not so bad.”
My Dad grips my headboard with white, rough knuckles and neither of us turns up the radio.
“December’s not so bad,” he agrees, and looks out the window as if waiting for snow.
Billy tugs on my hair and calls me “honey,” winks when he thinks my mother isn’t looking. Sometimes I think he’s watching when I swing one leg over the saddle and slip my foot into the stirrup.
In the mornings I go get eggs to make a heartland and he kisses me while the chickens watch with sleepy eyes. Later I suck out soft yolk as my mother says, “You carry your heartlands with you,” and I think of the atlas of letters across Billy’s shoulder, thick and black and twisted cursive. I think of the unmapped space between banjo strings and my Grandpa’s fingers. I think of a door that smelled like my mother’s hands. I think of the valleys in Aunt Mimi’s omniseasonal scarf and the way whiskey tastes when you drink it from a coffee cup.
My mother says, “Couldn’t leave them behind if you tried,” and pops the egg into her mouth.
Later, I watch my mother bury the placenta in the garden, under the jasmine. She says mine is there, too, and hers, and Aunt Mimi’s. She says they help everything grow.
The rug in the living room is tan and bites the bottoms of my feet with tiny claws. In the summer my skin gets dry and itchy so I lie on my back in my bathing suit and rub like a cat on the stiff carpet. A hundred thousand little fingernails hit all the right spots, and when I sit up my back flames red and hot and relieved.
“You’re going to sand yourself down to just your bones,” my Aunt Mimi tells me, with withered lips and strong fingers, but then she takes her shirt off and sands herself down with me.
The cigarette warm and too warm in my fingers, hot and scratchy like all the nights my mother listened to Otis Redding when our air conditioning broke. I think I can recite the reasons not to; I think I can smell the smoke twisting around my mother’s fingers when she drives.
“Black and Gold,” says Billy. His hands are twice the size of mine, rough like hay bales, strong like the tractors he throws them onto. “Nat Sherman’s. Best there is. Cheap as shit around here but fifteen bucks in the city.”
And I close my eyes and I take a deep breath and it itches like I thought it would but not as bad as it would have if I hadn’t.
He kisses me like he’s glad we’re in the dark, like all the lights have gone out just so he can rub circles into my hipbone with his thumb. His mouth tastes like my grandmother’s door smelled, his mouth tastes like baubles in the windows of trains, his mouth tastes like my mouth.
We lie stacked in grass that’s not dewy yet and the sun comes up and I can feel it like fire behind the grate.