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David Ryan


He kept a yellowed copy of the Roswell Daily Record on its most famous day, when all he was was a child with a jar of snakes in his hand, watching the ball of fire fly down from the sky. From the day when he ran to within a few feet of the smoke, over in the Bennets' pasture, and it was still sparking off into the air like fuses blowing. Roy counted five of them, and some parts. It could have been a plane crash. He was pretty sure that it was, but it was hard to tell. Three bodies were still inside. One had been thrown out against a cactus. The upper half of another was in, its other half out. Nothing told Roy this wasn't a plane crash: nothing. He kept thinking these bodies could be anyone. That guy could have been Cummins's mom. That guy could have been the Taffy Man with the loud dog. That one there could be the kid they called Finster and threw stones at.

There were melted parts and the half-in half-out one's hair had melted. There were sticks and plates with writing. There were shiny metallic kite parts. Or parts that made him think of kites. There was hair. There was a lot of hair.

If he had known better, Roy might have said, Here is someone who will spend his entire youth staggering into manhood. He might have stood and gazed into the eyepiece of some Future Machine, seen his narrow shoulders bouncing off walls, or spinning under the laundry line in the backyard. He might have watched himself hitting things in his car, running from damage.

Like his father who for a couple of months worked as a mechanical engineer for the government. To this day he's careening out there in the universe, bouncing off quasars.

Roy remembers years later telling Emily about it all the first night he'd slept with her. They met at the church where he'd go on Monday nights for the warmth and for the other people who would kneel and pray. He'd kneel and pray for the smell of their coats or aftershave and perfume. He would pray for the lights and the waxed hardwood, too, but most of all for the warmth and the others. He was drunk usually, lonely always. He came because his own house had become too empty or cold or warm to sit inside. He would try things in that house: he would turn the heat up all the way and wait a while and then open the windows so the cold would come in; and for a moment he would feel as if the cocktail of cold and warm were perfectly mixed, that an alchemy of happiness had been founded. Then the imbalance would come. He'd go to the window. He'd fidget with the thermostat. Usually it was too late.

Emily accepted the ride home from him because they had met that night at a church. It would be different, she told him, if it were a bar or a club or on the street. He didn't mean to be forward. She said, Not at all. She told him she was in AA, smelling his breath as he drove her home that night, and he said he had gone twice, but stopped after the second time. She asked why and he told her there were too many religious types in it, and if there was one thing he didn't go for, it was religious-type drunks. They would talk you down to. He meant talk down to you. They both chuckled nervously, as if on a first date. She stayed with him that night, and he left the thermostat at a decent level and kept the windows closed.

He stopped drinking the next morning.

Roy told her later his father was one of the ones brought down to the air base to pick through the wreckage in Roswell. You know, the alien issue. The issue has all the fanatics crying conspiracy. She told him back when she was drunk all the time she'd had some pretty close scrapes. Roy's father was civil, but the military got their hands all over him because he was a local, he was from the area. Maybe he was good at what he did. He'd like to think that. She told him about hiding the bottles from her husband. She told him her husband was the violent one. He'd come home at night with secrets, though, Roy said. You could tell. Just doing a job is all, he'd say. Nothing to it, he'd say. Reporters from Chicago and New York and Phoenix sniffing around town asking about the goddamn Martians. His dad threatening to tear a few new ones if they came near the house. You couldn't even go to school in the morning without some journalist following you in a Buick or Plymouth with questions about aliens and abductions, he said. She described some of the beatings she woke up from, hungover, she couldn't remember them. Her head throbbing; internal things, bruised soft muscle tissue; all that. You kept your mouth closed, Roy said. There wasn't that much to tell anyway, he said, one way or another. She had to appear in court a few times, she confessed. She told him that she used to disappear, the drinking would make her leave sometimes for months. I was only six at the time, Roy said. My first husband took a box cutter to me eventually, Emily said. I had the bastard locked up: See? And she ran Roy's finger along the short, thick scar that ran purple along her lower right check.

Roy remembered his father walking in the front door, his face so white that he could see blue capillaries in his checks and jaw. Little blue vessels that looked like his face was diseased, a larger one up on his temple that pulsed.

Back then Roy also saw a certain new tension between his father and his mother. Roy's father would run his hand through his hair repeatedly. By the end of dinner his mother would be saying things like, You can't speak even with your own wife? Can't even tell her about it? And his father would say, Please. For Christ's sake. I'm trying to eat, goddammit. You know I can't.

One night his father came home, and he kept breathing out and didn't seem to be breathing in. What is it? Roy's mother asked. Good Lord, she said. I mean. . . . His father kept hyperventilating. Oh God this is just . . . , she said. The next morning Roy's father disappeared and never came back.

It took a special arrogance to think you're the only thing in the universe, he told Emily. They may have been test dummies inside a goddamn top-secret weather balloon. Only that. What the fuck does he care? He doesn't disbelieve that, or anything else. You don't even have to believe in UFOs, he said, and Emily wiped his eye with the soft side of her hand and held him.

Sometimes a year would pass, other times it happened every other day for a month, he said. Ever since he was a kid. The phone rings and there's nothing on the other end when he picks it up but a faint crackling, like that of a needle put to a phonograph record. Whatever it really is, it is always there, this static. Maybe it is radio interference, he admitted to Emily.

I'd hang up at first, he said. It took a while to put two and two together, to understand who it was. Once I understood it was my father, though. . . . So I started talking into the mouthpiece. I would tell him about my day, or my week, or the kind of girl I was dating. I kept him up on Mom; though I never told her about the calls. I'd just keep talking to him, though, trying to keep him on the line. I'd go on and on and on until I heard a click, until I heard that the static had gone away.

A couple of months ago Roy came home and Emily had pulled the burgundy drapes so that the room was like looking through a glass of wine, he thought, with her sitting in the center of it on the green chair. He saw a bourbon bottle on the glass table in front of her. It was the good stuff, Maker's Mark, and the seal hadn't been broken. There was a small glass next to it.

Have a drink, she said. Come over here, Roy Boy, she said, patting the space on the loveseat beside her. Sit next to lover, here, Mr. Rogers. Have a drink, you've been a good boy long enough. Lover just wants to watch awhile is all.

C'mon, a teeny, she said, and her fingers pinched air in front of her.

The only difference between the previous times and this one was that before they had always occurred on the anniversary of the attack. She had the threat letters from her former husband neatly refolded and stacked inside a shoebox to prove it. Her former husband's threats were obvious, thinly disguised, but just enough so as to allow him to continue sending them. Things like: "I can't wait to get out and see my wife's lovely face" or "Darling, I've found God, and so will you the first chance I get to bring Him into your life." Things like that.

This would happen. He had tried to fix it when it did in the past. He'd tried calling doctors. He even had her committed once. He couldn't stand that thought again, though. When she came out of the funny farm she looked different, it was like the bones in her face had changed, things had sunken a little. So now he played along. He knew that he'd get really tight, then she'd take her drinks. Then she'd leave him, but only for a while. She'd come back. Since the first time, she had always come back.

Em, he said. He took off his coat, hung it on the walnut stained peg by the door. He sat down, facing her. She was peeling the wax seal from the top of the bottle. She took the bottle in one hand and the glass in the other. She poured it full enough that it spilled on her fingers.

Oops, she said, giggling, licking her thumb.

It's been all right, Em, Roy said. You don't think so? What is it? Name it, baby, I'll try to do it. We'll manage through the creep. This is the problem, huh? Let's not go through this business again, though. We can get through it, he said.

Have one, she said, and as she held the filled glass out some more spilled on her hands.

With slight variation what followed was the same as all the other times it had happened: He drank his little glass of whisky. She rearranged herself on the chair, fidgeting. She moved her legs in different ways, like arranging sticks in a pile.

She said, Come on, now. Come on now. Changing how her legs were positioned.

Roy said, Just hold on, would you? There are goddamn programs for this. He knocked back another and began to feel it. Maybe we just haven't done it right. Our approach. Programs, with steps you follow. Fuck, you were in the AA? We could find a good one, Em.

Her legs were folded under her hips, so that the feet disappeared beneath her. Then her feet crossed in front of her. She poured another glass and extended it. Drink, she said. I wanna see what I look like when I'm really blotto. I want to see how pretty. And she laughed this throaty laugh.

They have this pill you take, Roy said. It makes you sick when you drink.

Shut up and have another one, she said, and there was a slight slur in her speaking, though she hadn't yet had anything to drink.

It wasn't long before Roy began to feel himself lift. He was half hoping the drinking would kill him somehow, right there and then, as the other half of him rose into the center of the room. The alcohol was picking him up. His stomach was singing songs, gutter tunes, but Emily was down below him singing along. He'd been taken by it. He was madly in love.

Roy was on the floor when she flicked on the lights. The room blinded him. She laughed at his squinting. Hey there, Mr. Rogers, she said. She grabbed the bottle and appeared to tower over him. The liquor was pouring down her chin and her lovely, thin neck. He watched her throat, the swallowing. Light caught the wet scar. It ran in an ever so slight purple curve like another very little smile. The wet from the bourbon made a strip of her face shine. Normally you wouldn't see it, he thought. You just wouldn't notice, unless you knew or were close enough to kiss it, unless you were here right now, with the light as it is, feeling the drunk creep up on you, over you, feeling it lift you, lift and throw you.

I love you, Emily, he said. It sounded awful the second it left his mouth.

The next morning he didn't feel sick. He felt angry and frustrated, but it was more an invisible hangover, the mental fatigue, than that Emily had left him again. By now he was as used to this as he could be used to it. He wouldn't fool himself into thinking there was much of a solution. He'd been saving to have the scar on her face removed. They can do things to fix that. He knew though that this wasn't all of it. Her first husband damaged her beyond a simple undoing.

The photograph of him was in a box she'd brought over when she moved into Roy's place. The only photo that had not been thrown away or burned. The fire department came, she had told him once, and found her standing there staring at the fire she'd made as it climbed the garage wall.

From the photo Roy didn't think her first husband looked like he'd take a box cutter to a woman's face. He could be a guy at the airport handing you a Bible or a next-door neighbor you owe a tool, Roy thought.

Roy ran that photo through his mind, parked outside Allen County Corrections. It was early, six-fifteen a.m., and raining. He wondered, as he did constantly, where Emily was about now—she never told him, didn't write or anything. Wouldn't speak of it even when she eventually came back, even if she had been gone for months.

Roy watched a gold Chevy Malibu pull up in front of his car and idle. A woman sat in the driver's side. Exhaust billowed out from the tailpipe in the rain.

Two black men left the front of the building and passed easily through the security gate of the prison. One of them looked over at the guard and kept his eyes on him as they left. Roy played a film in his mind about that stare. Men and women—family—were waiting past the gate for the two men. There was a little joyful congregation in the rain. It was like the guys were brothers, or father and son. Or maybe their respective families got together and bonded over their incarceration. They all hugged each other like one big family, stooped and umbrellaed in the rain. The group walked toward a bus and one by one got on. Everyone smiling. Roy felt warm watching them all like that, felt like maybe there was hope in the world.

A tall white man came out of the front of the building, alone. He stood outside the door, as if he weren't ready to leave yet, or didn't know where he was. Roy saw then that the tall man was only looking for the car, the Gold Malibu in front. With his coat over his head, he passed through the courtyard and then the security gate in the rain, and walked toward the car parked in front of Roy and climbed inside. Roy saw his shadow lean over and merge with the woman's, through the steamed-over back window.

Roy started his car and followed. Behind the Malibu he began to play the movie of his own life. It started here, as if he'd been born in this car and had passed easily, timelessly, into adulthood in only a few minutes. In this car he smoked his first cigarette. There was no need for any kind of back story in this car, in the movie unfolding from its windshield. In this car, too, he took his first drink and followed the bad guy. A childhood was gutted from this particular movie, it was a driving film, a road movie. He imagined the reel kept inching up as the car accelerated, stopped as he stopped at the lights, and again accelerated.

Coldwater Road drove through the county, dividing it in half. At one point it ran along a stretch of highway that overlooked a large quarry. The grassy side of the road fell into the gorge, protected only by a little baling wire, some steel tubes for support above on the highway.

It was raining hard. He had followed the Malibu as far back as he could without losing it in the rain. If he had any unformed intentions, they slowly began to come together along the drive behind the other car. So he sped up and came behind the Malibu, just kissed his fender to its bumper. And as they pulled over, he pulled over to the gravel, at a safe distance back.

The woman got out of the car, and he knew it was because the man in the passenger seat was angry. Roy imagined she had said something like Mike, don't go getting yourself into anything I can't get you out of now. Something like that. As if Roy were a cop.

Roy got out and started walking toward her.

You two all right? Roy said, and stopped at her bumper, pretending to look for any damage. Began to hydroplane. I lost control, I guess, he continued.

That's all right, she said, eyeing her bumper. It's fine, looks like. The woman looked harder than Emily: without the scar or some of the other lines, but harder still. He wondered if their relationship had started through some prison pen pal service.

I don't see anything, he said, but . . .

This old thing isn't worth the trouble anyway, she said.

Her makeup was running down her face by now, and he could see she just wanted to get this over with. She glanced over her shoulder to the shadow in the front seat of the car and said, Well, thanks anyway and walked back to the driver's side. Roy stood there as the Malibu started up and slowly drove back up onto the road. He raised his hand and waved.

It was about a quarter mile after that, where the trees were beginning to rise up the slope along the line of the drop to the quarry, when Roy accelerated, pulled up alongside the Malibu, and then slammed into it. He remembered how her mouth was open, and she looked at him and in the flicker Roy saw the man next to her reach over her like a safety belt as their car turned hard away from Roy's, and then disappeared from sight over the incline.

Roy pulled over and stopped. He climbed out. The Malibu was upside down, hadn't fallen into the quarry, but had hit a tree pretty badly. There was a good chance that no one would have lived through the impact. Roy went a few feet down the incline. The middle of the car, the passenger side, had bent around the tree and Roy had a brief recollection, a recognition of the dolls, the test dummies, the aliens, whatever they were that day in New Mexico. And he was six, holding a glass jar full of snakes. The bottom of the car was oil-colored, and steamed against the tree in the rain. Roy saw something spectacular about the position, the justification of the car to the wide space behind it, the quarry there expanded into what looked like a mile of space: this immense gray backdrop, its epochs slate-ringed down lower where a hundred feet deep of water had filled an old trough, a cutout from overmining half a century earlier.

When he came back up the hill he saw that the right side of his car had a streak of gold paint running across it, the paint imbedded in a long, shallow dent in the metal. Also, he noticed that the passenger-side doorknob had been torn off. He walked around to the other side of the car, got in. He started the engine and turned the radio on. As he drove away he replayed the movie of his life, with the radio as soundtrack, figuring that about now his life in this car was coming to an end.

But it didn't. He drove home, pulled into his garage and turned off the radio, then sat listening to the engine ticking over the quiet. He went inside the house and pulled open the curtains. The bottle of bourbon Emily had left on the coffee table the night before had a finger's-worth left in it.

He took the money he had saved for Emily's face surgery and used it to support himself until she came back. He had enough for the mortgage and enough to eat every so often. Financially he could last for a while like this. It wasn't like when Emily came back she'd let him use the money he'd saved on her anyway. It'd be enough for him to be able to tell her she was safe here.

One night a couple of weeks ago Roy drove his car to the quarry. He left it in neutral, pushed, and watched it tumble down to where the deep water had filled the deeper mining. He walked home and it took him a greater part of the night. This would be a good time to say there was a clarity to the evening along the ten miles, but there wasn't really; it was dark, dark and a little cold out. When Emily came back they would re-piece it all together. He'd get a new job. They'd help each other, then, but in the meantime here he was walking in the dark, his bones raw-chilled.

The phone had rung twice, and both times he picked it up and spoke into the space, the static, for fifteen, twenty minutes. Then he stopped and just listened for a while, wishing just once his dad would speak. He closed his eyes. He pictured the noise, this faint roar of static, as stars collecting into galaxies, listened as if he were witness to some kind of grab at the future.

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