It was the morning Dickie Joe Cambridge drove his not-yet son-in-law to work with him at the gas plant, listening to the teenager’s first-day jitters, willing him to shut the hell up, fantasizing about the blabber-mouth kid getting sucked out the window by a freak tornado or a space alien or God, but there was no intervention for Dickie Joe, divine or otherwise.
Not-yet Boy asked again how often the paychecks would come, if he really had to wear the hardhat, when he might get his own company pickup truck. Dickie squinted, sifting through the noise, searching for the hum-thump rhythm of tires on blacktop, the singular empty sound that caressed his bones like choirsong.
Not-yet Boy talked about teenager music, some shit Dickie’d never heard of, jabbered that he wanted to be a DJ someday, complained about the truck’s busted radio. Dickie never admitted he’d broken the damn radio himself, ripped out the guts of it and crammed the hollow façade back into the dashboard. He flexed his fingers tight on the steering wheel, remembered the stretch of coated wire, felt again the saltine crack of the miniature circuit board.
It was the morning Evangeline McKay found an injured deer in her backyard. She’d been thinking about her son, about how her only child had to miss the end of his senior year, about the chicken sandwich she’d packed for his first day of work. The deer lay sheltered under thick pine branches, almost cozy in the underbrush, but the ground behind the trees was barren, leaving the animal exposed. Evangeline crept closer and saw crusted blood, a jagged rib piercing the hide, straining stark with each breath. She took stock of the injuries, considered the stubbornness of bodies, of bones, how they keep on ringing with their suffering and their need even after there’s nothing left to pray for. She wanted to lay her hand on the deer’s flank, to offer, and take, comfort, but knew her touch would be cruel for the frightened animal. Instead, she hummed low in her chest, hoping to soothe the crack of the gun, to bridge the startle of silence, afterward, the stilling of heart and birdsong and breeze. But her voice faltered, breath stolen by the inevitable suddenness of the hammerfall. She settled into the pine needles, stroked the deer’s coat until the last of its heat rose into the sky.
It was the morning Dickie Joe’s mother-in-law, Dorothea Lipscomb, announced her bone cancer had returned, and also, she was sorry she ever had children. She held court in the hallowed basement of the Las Animas Baptist Church, where her granddaughter’s combination wedding-&-baby shower was underway. The assembled church ladies ignored the bride-to-be—she was puking in the bathroom—as well as the mother-of-the-bride—she was spiking the punch with a fifth of vodka. Instead, they fixed their diamondback eyes on Dorothea, who proclaimed she’d never seen the ocean, or flown in a jet plane, or had sex with a man who didn’t have sandy brown hair—and even those few sandy men had all been named John or Bob. Her husband was a lackwit and her children had demonstrated, time and again, that they had inherited his limited intellectual capabilities. Dorothea would have left him and the gusty grit of this snakehole town, might have gone to college, might have joined a commune or got a job singing love songs in some green-tree paradise, if she hadn’t been tied to her kids’ mistakes—Johnny Junior trying to jump his Camaro over the gulch, Bobby robbing all those gas stations, Sally marrying that nutjob Dickie Joe when she didn’t even have to. It was the morning Dorothea said she was going to California to die with her toes in the saltwater, and maybe she’d get a chance to do it with one of those sexpot movie stars—maybe a Milo, maybe a Scarlet—before she croaked. She dropped a thick cash envelope labeled “options” on her granddaughter’s gift table and sauntered out the door, leaving Sally standing slack-jawed by the punchbowl. The good church ladies waited until Sally had joined her morning-sick daughter in the bathroom before their snakesong surged anew.
It was the morning a corroded section of the Las Animas Pipeline gave way, allowing liquid natural gas to seep into the unusually calm morning air and catch a spark—maybe a metal-on-metal scritch from a passing pickup truck—igniting a fireball seven-hundred feet into the sky, melding sand and blacktop into a shiny-slick slag, rattling windows back in town, twenty miles away. Evangeline was the first to feel the tremble as it raced through the hardpan, soaking up from the ground into the spent body of the deer, fooling her into thinking, for the span of her heart’s beat, that everything might be okay, that the deer might rise, whole and alive, and her boy might yet find the future he craved. Years later, Evangeline would remember this hollow beat of hope, closing her eyes whenever she happened to glimpse a clutch of deer, plugging her ears against Dickie Joe’s widow Sally, whose bonesong still resonated with that morning’s explosion, her own personal aria of deliverance, loud and free.
Header photograph by Courtney Elizabeth Young.