The answering machine blinks. I have three unheard messages.
Two are from Turner, reminding me about Aesop’s appointment. Twice. I guess it says something about me that he felt once wasn’t enough.
Turner is my blind pony Aesop’s vet—he was the first of six vets who said Aesop had a shot at a comfortable life. He’s been making the forty-minute trek to Chincoteague from the mainland twice a week for over a year now. Eventually it got so tense that I couldn’t even go into the barn with Turner. I guess Aes could sense the want between us, like it had grown its own body. An unfamiliar thing in his space. Something detectable without sight. Aesop snorts a pre-buck warning breath when we were both in there. Now I stand on the other side of the barn wall during the appointments, eavesdropping on horse whispers, but listening, mostly, for Turner’s voice.
He finally asked me out last fall, but what that meant to him was coming over every few Friday nights with Won Ton soup and Blockbuster rentals. Depending on the movie, we’d make-out a while. It usually felt like it was going somewhere, but his hands never dropped past the small of my back. Every week I’d tell myself that it was finally going to happen. I even started wearing skirts. But when the hem would ride up my thigh, he’d either pretend not to notice or flatten it out.
He’d say, “just rest, Rox.” Like that is what I need, more rest. People always say that. But sick people don’t want to be told to rest. Instead of wondering, quietly, restfully, if I am going to die, I’d rather be pushed, hard, to the edge of my life.
The next message is the scheduling nurse from Dr. DeSouza’s office. She has a stuffy nose. She reminds me, like I don’t know, that I skipped my last two labs. That Dr. DeSouza would really like me to come in. Her sniffles make the message seem more serious. It sounds like she’s been crying. I play it again and again, imagining that she is pleading with me to preserve myself.
I go on the porch and wait for Turner, digging my hand into a bag of birdseed. Cicadas pulse as I stare at the barn, trying to ignore the pull. Turner’s car jerks into my driveway and I pull my hand out of the bag, shaking off the seeds stuck to my palm. He looks different, smaller, in his silver sedan.
He hasn’t seen me yet—he’s finishing off a hamburger. He takes a huge bite and nods along to the reggae rattling his windows.
Turner looks up. I wave and step off the porch. He rolls down the window, still chewing.
“Did we have an appointment?” I call. My sandals kick gravel up at my ankles.
He rushes to swallow. “Didn’t you get my messages?”
“No, did you call?” I cock my head, mocking him.
Turner smiles. “How are you doing?”
“Well, I was thinking about biking to Assateague.”
“I’ll drive you.”
After Turner examines Aesop and shoots him full of medication, I follow him back to the car. He moves the McDonald’s bag, the Exodus CD case, hand sanitizer, and a few library books off the passenger seat. I wonder how long it’s been since he’s had someone else in this car. When he clears off the seat, I sit down, peeking at the books in the back. Two of the three are about learning to fold origami and the other is one called Understanding Equine Neurology.
Turner must take that Bob Marley CD from truck to car to truck. Or have two copies. Neither option is good. I’ve never heard this song. That’s saying a lot, here, too. Chincoteague booms with reggae. I don’t know how it happened—the craggy Virginia island is less than 10 square miles, composed mostly of white, gruff maritime men, decoy carvers and people who run the small shops that support them. Chincoteague pretends it’s Caribbean, only without the always-warm beaches and fresh mango. But, this song isn’t one of the typical anthems the oyster fishermen sing along to at the bar. It’s more like a reggae lullaby.
Turner’s speakers crackle a little, but I can still make out the lyrics. He sings along in an attempted Jamaican coo. “I want to give you some love, I want to give you some good, good lovin’.” He isn’t talking to me, but for a flash, I am comfortable with the idea of being loved by him.
I laugh. “Don’t quit your day job.”
He stops singing.
“I was just kidding, Turner.” I try to sound sincere, but I am not sure how it comes out. I’ve heard that my voice is whetted. Biting.
Turner turns the radio off and wets his lips.
“I wasn’t trying to make fun of you,” I furrow. “Seriously.”
He doesn’t say anything and I clasp my hands and stare forward as we pass a block of colorful dilapidated shacks, some boarded up, some still lived in. We miss our turn to the bridge, but I don’t say anything, afraid it will sound more critical than I mean. It’s never easy for me with Turner, soundtracked either by Bob Marley or loaded silence.
August’s afternoon sun tries to throw off its gray cover, but the sky just barely brightens. Turner clears his throat and turns the music back on, changing the song to the one I especially hate—the one about heathens.
“So,” he starts, “when is the last time you’ve been to the doctor?” It’s amazing, the way he is able to ask caring questions with his voice emptied of care.
“It’s been a minute."
I sit staring out the window, so out of sync with him, this record’s promise of exodus, this island’s pastel bungalows, the tourists and their pony paraphernalia.
When the song fades out, the silence between tracks is so loud.
He drives for another minute before I say, “Maybe we should just turn around.”
“What?” Turner looks over. “Why?”
“I just realized I should probably.”
“Turn around. We missed the turn.”
“Why didn’t you say anything?”
I shrug. “I thought you knew how to get there.”
Turner looks over his shoulder and flips the car around. I stare at my feet where a lopsided origami bird has been rejected.
I pick the bird up and sit it on my palm. It tips over. When I try to straighten it out, it tilts again, a wing leaning against my fingers. I think of Aesop, slumped against the stall, limp, crumpled.
He’s close to the turn for Assateague, but instead he turns onto my street. When we get to the house, I get out of the car and Turner pulls away.
I stand there in the dust of the gravel. Things can sour so quickly and I’ve never figured out how to turn it around.
I have this memory of Dad playing “Take Me to the River” by Talking Heads on the car radio. His David Byrne impression always cracked me up. He watched me laugh in the rearview mirror as he jerked the lyrics out. Mom couldn’t take it. She’d just gotten her perm flattened out and colored a flat, lifeless brown, cropped at her ears. I loved her hair. It was big and wild. I felt like I could never see all of it, all of her. Like she was a woman full of mystery, forty-something years of secrets sleeping in her curls. And of course Dad loved it, too—he must have. She had always been that person to us. We needed our anchor.
She turned the music down, saying it had been fifteen minutes and he hadn’t even mentioned her hair.
“Looks good.” He stared straight ahead.
“I don’t need you to lie if you don’t like it.”
Dad was silent. Then she barked, “But I guess it would be nice if you’d say something.”
She couldn’t help it, I guess. Happiness was still too hard to bear. But once our lives had been so good it seemed unnatural. There was a time when we knew how to be happy.
Dad would take Jamie and me to the top of Shadow Mountain in snowstorms, showing us the way our rippling valley looked under its white blanket. My mother would make us hot chocolate and have a warm bath ready when we stripped off our snowsuits.
Mom and Dad would dance to the strange songs that reminded them of meeting. They’d flail to Frank Zappa and Thomas Dolby and drink Jack and Cokes and watch stand-up comedians. They laughed all the time. They made us laugh all the time. Our world was a joke with a million punch lines.
One spring, we were all eating grilled corn and hot dogs in the grassy yard. An ice cream truck siren echoed somewhere in the valley and Jamie and I perked up. With some convincing, my father got in his car and drove off after the tinkling of the song. After what felt like hours to a child, we heard the ice cream truck getting closer to our house. My mother reminded us that even though we were excited, not to forget to thank Daddy.
When “It’s A Small World” stopped and we heard my father’s car door slam, we ran around to the front of the house and saw him unloading boxes of Creamsicles, Drumsticks, ice cream sandwiches, Firecracker popsicles, Klondike Bars, lemon ices, Toasted Almonds and Choco-Tacos. For a second, I thought the ice cream man was moving in with us and his only belongings were the boxes of frozen treats.
When my father finally got the truck unpacked, they shook hands and he drove off without turning his chime back on.
It took us a while to realize that Dad had bought an entire truck full of ice cream for us. Jamie and I kept looking back and forth at each other and then to our smiling parents, just to make sure it was real. I guess when Jamie got sick, my parents used up all the last bit of their magic on trying to make her better.
After almost two years of intensive treatments and surgeries and clinical trials, Jamie went into remission—Mom and Dad almost came back to us. They weren’t quite the technicolor I remember, but they brightened. The color returned to their faces like they had a hope fever. But they didn’t know yet that remission is cancer’s best asset. It hides out, holds its breath, knowing that once backs are turned, it can sneak in, spread out, take over.
After a few months of remission, the cancer was back. Jamie died within two months. Mom stopped reading about vampires and stopped dancing—she never even listened to music, outside of sometimes half-humming along to commercial jingles. Then her curls fell straight.
Even as a kid I wanted to tell my parents it wasn’t their fault, but they seemed to prefer the weariness, letting their bigness shrivel up. They preferred disconnection, the slow emptying of self, to the reality that even after that fever of hope, they couldn’t keep her alive.
I know it’s in me, that whittling away. I don’t know how to stop it.
In the house, I put on the TV and pull a blanket over my head. I don’t know what remission’s made of me yet. I like sounds though, suggesting that the world is still going on. People are still laughing, crying, driving cars, and getting angry at each other. People are still together. Bob Marley, cancer-killed, still promises that every little thing is going to be alright.
It’s dusk-dark outside when I hear tires pull across the gravel. I’m making a bag of popcorn for dinner, standing beside the microwave, listening for the last lingering pops. Turner is back, lumbering purposefully up the porch steps.
I open the door. His eyes are bloodshot.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” he says, “will you come with me?”
I follow Turner to the car and he’s got that Bob Marley CD on. When “Three Little Birds” comes on, he tears up and I put my hand on his shoulder.
“Don’t cry,” I say.
I don’t look at him. I listen, trying to measure the volume and pace of his tears.
“One Love” comes on as we pass onto the mainland. I almost ask him where we are going but when I try to speak, my stomach jerks like a dry heave. Nothing comes out. Bob Marley asks if there’s a place for the hopeless sinner.
We speed past a farm. Some black angus are congregating by the fence. They look glossy, almost wet, in the glow of Turner’s high beams.
“Those cows shouldn’t be out,” I say. “The coyotes will get them.”
“There are no coyotes out here.” Turner sniffles.
I shake my head. “Right,” I say, remembering that I’m far from home, where coyotes kill cows and goats and stray cats whenever the sun slips behind the ridge, where the only water is fresh, where ‘pony’ means a Thoroughbred foal, one that will soon grow tall, wear saddles, hunt foxes.
“I haven’t seen a cow in a while,” I say.
Turner ignores me. Under the headlights, the rocky asphalt looks like fast water. I get hypnotized by the rushing road and the rhythm of the reggae. When Turner slows the car down and jerks into park, I’m still in a trance.
It takes a second to refocus on the stillness and shake my ears of the music, but then I center on the Animal Hospital’s fluorescent sign.
“What are we doing here?”
Turner swings us around back. He opens his car door and closes it so quietly that it doesn’t make a sound.
When I get out and walk toward a door, he grabs my arm and pulls me toward a different one. As he unlocks the private entrance, I half-believe there’s some happy, healthy foal he stole from some nearby farmer that he plans to offer me in place of Aesop. That kind of non-solution he always tries for.
He looks in first and then hauls me into a vacant examination room.
“What are we doing here?” I ask again.
He puts his finger over his mouth, telling me to be quiet. The animal hospital runs 24 hours. Even though it’s nighttime, there are always a few vet techs yawning at the front desk, awaiting emergencies.
Turner locks the door and turns on the x-ray box to light the room. There’s a scan of a small rodent skull on it, but I can’t tell if anything’s wrong. He washes his hands, grabs a syringe and tubes and pulls on plastic gloves. He tells me to go stand in the light.
“Their teeth are so tiny,” I say, looking at the x-ray. Turner quickly ties my arm off with a rubber cord, swabs the crook of my elbow. He pokes into the small swell of blue veins.
“What the hell?”
“Sorry, I usually don’t have to warn.” He puts a full vial on the counter connects a new one to the needle.
“No, I mean, what are we doing?”
He keeps his eyes my blood, which looks black and shiny in this light, like the lacquered fur of the cows.
After he’s done filling four vials, he hands me a cotton ball to push against the vein. On the tubes of blood, he writes Aesop Falk.
“Are you kidding?”
He ignores me and slips out the door. I stand staggered in the eerie glow of the x-ray, holding the cotton ball against my vein.
When Turner comes back, he waves me into a different room. The door warns that we’re going into a radioactive zone. I recognize the tube of the machine perfectly. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that it looks exactly the same as the one I’m so used to entering. I’m just an animal.
“Slip all that off,” he rushes me.
“Is this a time machine?” I drop my jeans and T-shirt on the floor.
“Even that.” He points shyly to my bra.
“Which way am I headed?” I strip the rest off and slip naked onto the cold table.
He points in the direction he wants my body to go, but that isn’t what I meant.
Turner readjusts me in the machine. Though his touch is empty of any intention but to fix my posture, it still excites me when he lays my ankles on their sides, opening my naked hips.
Turner collects the pile of clothing I dropped on the ground and slips into another room. He doesn’t warn me as the machine rumbles to life, but I remember. I take a deep breath and close my eyes. This Bob Marley song is stuck in my head—we got out of the car before it finished. It’s the one that goes:
I don't want wait in vain for your love.
I don't want wait in vain for your love.
I don't want wait in vain for your love.
The tube circles me, starting at my feet and moving up toward my face. Just before it gets there, I stop humming and smile for the picture.