The high school kids are out for summer, so all over this spit of a Mississippi town young women walk around in t-shirts over wet swimsuits. They cruise the Walgreens in coveys and type on thin phones, buy glamour mags and flavored water, their flip-flops slapping linoleum, their tan legs all over the place.
The boys in their wake call out Hey and Hey, y’all. They huddle up around hand-me-down trucks at the far end of the parking lot and trade licks. It’s the worst.
* * * *
Yesterday afternoon, Darla came home, pitched her keys on the counter and asked what was for dinner. My response was to ask what she wanted, because she vomits so much I can no longer guess what’ll stay down.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“Taco Loco?” I said. “China Buffet?”
“No. But thanks for the healthy suggestions.” She took a big breath and looked out the window. “Sorry,” she said. “Maybe I can go Taco Loco again. I just need to coat my stomach. God, it’s burning up in here. Can we not turn on the air?”
“Sure, babe,” I said. “Just tell me what you want.”
“I don’t know. Nothing,” she said. “Just nothing.”
“’Cause I’ll eat whatever, Dar. I just don’t have any money.”
And so forth. Finally, she just took her pills with a glass of buttermilk. We then sat and watched Animal Planet beneath the hot draft of the ceiling fan. I thought about asking Darla why her boss had called the house again, looking for her during work hours. Thought about asking until reflux crept up my throat. But I stayed quiet. Since moving to Mississippi, I’ve come to mistrust confrontation; I am no longer sure where her wrong ends and my right begins.
During a scuba segment, Darla described the feeling of hatchling sea turtles crawling over your bare feet. “Flippers like flower petals,” she said, her tone cottony and nostalgic. “Back in college, North Carolina, you’d go to the beach at night and shine a flashlight to guide them to the water. The light pollution, it—”
“You decide where you want to eat?” I cut in, not wanting any part of North Carolina, of Fort Bragg and that soldier she was with before me.
She didn’t answer. At every commercial I’d ask again, and she’d say she didn’t care. At some point I stood up from the couch, and went to grab a handful of quarters from the change-jar on my dresser. Darla could figure her own thing out; I was going to cash in for a set of two-for-one Walgreens pizzas.
I charged back through the den on my way out the door. “Since you can’t tell me what you want to—”
She lunged up and ran to the bathroom to puke. This always makes me wonder if the pills even stick. I mean, what’s the point?
An hour or so later, back on the couch, Darla said we didn’t have that much romance left in us. In response I said, I love you, Dar, over and over, which was all I could think to say. I love you. But I love you. Gosh, I love you. How I love you. It felt like scooping water with a rake.
She was angry anyway. We were again watching television and she gave me positive news about her cell counts, and I only responded with, “That’s great,” at the commercial. But I love you. The cat had pulled out all kinds of tiny loops in the faded red upholstery. Darla had been skipping work but not coming home. How I love you. Nobody could stand to put the dishes in the dishwasher until everything piled up and stank and had gnats.
“Enough,” I said a few minutes later. “Go get your suit on.”
She turned the television volume up.
“Come on, get your swim trunks,” I said. I held my gun finger to her head until I earned a smile. We no longer watched films. We no longer spoke of culture. Yet romance could still be rekindled by sneaking into the pool at High Cotton Apartments.
At the Quik Pik, I grabbed a twelve-pack, and Darla handed me the debit card, no problem. Things were looking up and we had plenty of gas in the car and she said she doesn’t really mind my new little belly. We snuck into the complex pool and found nobody there, so I stripped my t-shirt off. She pushed me in and shrieked. There was a pool light at the shallow end but the light at the deep had gone out. Most of the water was opaque in contrast. The purple-green evening darkened into moonless black and the stars began to pop in stuttered levels of bright. At the edge of the patio fence, magnolia blossoms unfurled in ivory, and a dim yellow light cast down the coppery pebble inlay of the restroom wall. Darla swam to me and dipped her head back to get her hair out of her face, and for a moment we treaded the dark water and just looked at each other. She put her legs around me and we kissed as we sank, soft and slick and wet and lovely. I started to bob us off the bottom and move toward the light of the shallow end; up and down, up and down, I moved us towards that light. When the water level hit our chests, Darla told me she loved me. It felt like buckets. I wanted so badly to be with her, and knew she felt the same. But we hadn’t brought any condoms, of course, so we just half smiled and looked past each other.
“What’s that?” she asked. She disentangled from me, then swam to the shallow end and stood up. The water was illuminated and alien there, and a cluster of small, ghost-white objects rested on the bottom of the pool. There were eight or ten of them, bulleted in shape, undulating in the current from our movements.
“They’re flower buds off of that magnolia,” Darla said. “Sepals.”
“No, babe,” I said. “They’re too white.”
She stepped toward the blossoms, her waist rippling the water. She trapped one with her toes, reached under and pulled it up.
“Oh,” she said, holding the object out to me. “It’s a tampon. They’re all just blanched-out, chlorinated tampons.”
I looked around and saw that someone had thrown the sanitary receptacle from the ladies’ room into a boxwood hedge by the lounge chairs. I guess they’d ripped it right off the wall, then dumped it out in the water as a joke.
High schoolers, I thought. Fucking high school vandals fucking up my everything.
* * * *
The Starbucks inside the Kroger sells the big paper from Jackson, and people leave sections lying around when heading off to work. Sometimes you pick up a Home and Garden, sometimes the Classifieds, or Religion. Sometimes those of us who don’t head off to work pass the sections around and discuss. (Nobody ever talks about art or creative process, or the city, or the things Darla and I talked about when we lived in the city. No. That life got strangled out when we moved her back home.) All week long the Metro/State section has run installments about the last abortion clinic in the state. A group of lobbyists and politicians are trying to shut it down. From predawn to dusk that clinic is hemmed by evangels wagging posters of dead babies, alongside the Jackson PD and a PBS crew.
On my last day working at the Oriental rug shop over in Oxford, a leisure-class infant puked on the parquet floor. The mother then puppy-talked the baby while gauging a nineteenth century Persian Heriz. “Ow-noh,” she said. “Awuh-woh.” I refused to wipe up and was fired on the spot. Now Darla and
I can’t afford to blast the air-conditioning.
* * * *
The message Darla’s boss left yesterday was no longer creepy genteel. It was not Wednesday’s, Just checkin’ in on Darla to make sure she’s feelin’ okay. Nor was it Thursday’s, Hey there, just sort of wantin’ to know, well, where Darla might be. Give a call. No. It was: Darla, this is Jane Fisher. Call me the instant you get this.
I rescued my first turtle a couple of months ago, right after I lost the rug store job. This was on a Saturday, and I remember the radio saying the temperature had hit ninety-four degrees by ten-fifteen a.m.—a record. I was coming back from dropping Darla off at Lu’s, where they were going to have a Girl’s Day Out in the country and drink Keystone Lite in Lu’s aboveground pool. The open car windows baptized me in hot air as I gunned it over the straights of County Road 313. The old Mazda shuddered with every brake at the curves. I flew past mobile homes and wood-rot barns and dead cars in yards, and millions of tiny green cotton shanks in rows in the endless fields. Lu is a Gold Star, a wild-ass former professor whose Army reservist husband got KIA while deployed, not shot or bombed, but blown full of metal split rim and rubber after he forgot to cage a transport truck tire, then overinflated it. She retired on the Servicemembers’ Group Life payout, and moved into a shotgun house in the sticks so she could rag economic segregation from beyond the academy. And make bonfires and drink beer.
Squares is what you call as-yet-fruitless cotton plants, Lu taught me. She likes Darla and me because we came to Mississippi from the city. Or, rather, Lu likes that Darla slung back home having put boots on the ground of the Great Cultural Beyond. (“You got more cred,” Lu says, “than any dipshit Cultural Beyonder who judges the South from afar.”) Lu gets drunk and weepy and calls her late husband Rubberneck, and tries to laugh, and wipes her eyes while she lights organic cigarettes. She claims to be pissed that he didn’t leave her a decent combat story, a real whopper to throw around so folks could at least be impressed.
Anyway: It was a box turtle. I pulled over, and walked back to get it off the road. When I got close I realized its back end had been crimped by a tire. It hissed when I picked it up, and a chip of carapace plinked onto the asphalt. Its front legs clawed the air and its back legs flung on limp muscle. I paced around saying Jesus Christ a bunch of times while gingerly suspending the animal; there was tall dead grass on the edges of the fields and rusted wire fence, no water. A couple of old black men drove by in a green, -early-seventies F-100, towing shoddy yard equipment on a deck trailer. They looked at me like I was wild. I was desperate to find some moisture in which to place the thing. “Please stop trying to kick your back legs,” I begged. The shell was revealing itself to be a series of fractures. I figured the turtle would die but there was no way I could kill it. Finding no water, I carried it to a shady spot beneath a cluster of shortleaf pines. Huge black ants scurried atop the fallen needles beneath the trees.
“Sorry, man,” I said, putting the turtle on the ground before walking away. “I promise I’m trying.”
That night, while I was cleaning Darla’s puke splats off the bottom of the boys’ rim of the toilet, she got dropped off, drunk. She traipsed in and stood over me, and giggled at my yellow latex gloves.
“You never see these splats because of the way you piss,” I said. “But they’re here nonetheless.” I then told her to hand me the Ajax.
* * * *
Today, we were hauling ass on 278 East, west of Batesville, when I saw it. It was the biggest turtle I’d ever come across; a virtual extinction-in-waiting. Darla yelled when I whipped off the highway and into the manicured, pea-pebble drive of a restored plantation house. She couldn’t believe I was stopping, as if things weren’t bad enough.
We were supposed to be at the Sunflower Festival in Clarksdale, eating mounds of spicy crawdads with corn and sausage, sitting on the lawn near the main stage, listening to sacred steel music and drinking American beer. But halfway there we got in a fight so deep that both of us decided it best to turn the car around, drive right back out of the Delta, and drive beyond the hills, maybe all the way to Shiloh, where we’d walk in the knee-high grass of the battlefields and try to finally figure our shit out. Specifically, Darla confessed that she lost her job because she’s been driving down to Jackson to loiter at the gates of the abortion clinic profiled in the news. She said she doesn’t know why, or even what she thinks about it. Only that she’s overwhelmed by the physical inability to pick a side.
One of the evangelicals she met is trying to forgive her her past sins. Darla has no idea how to respond to this, either.
Though the ass end of the Mazda wasn’t really in the road, cars swerved and honked at us anyway. I got out and ran toward the massive turtle, which was parked at the centerline. Darla stayed in the car, in front of the antebellum plantation house, yelling obscenities.
The turtle was as big as a hubcap. When I picked it up it twisted its neck around to bite me, so I dropped it and darted back to the shoulder. Looking around, I noticed a small pool of gulley-wash at the edge of the cotton field behind me—a perfect refuge, if I could get it there without losing a finger.
I ran back to the car, told Darla to get the knife out of the glove box.
“I’m not saving or killing anything,” she said.
“Come on, Dar.”
“We can’t just let the thing die.”
The historic house we idled in front of was gorgeous: white column and portico and pediment, fanlight glass arching above the large doorway, and tall red cedars lining the long pebble drive. It sat comfortably back from the highway, its property defined by a thick, manicured hedge and tall iron gates. Acres of young, match-head cotton buds stretched out in rows over the adjacent fields. One lapse in drunken judgment less, one slip of latex more, and we both knew Darla would’ve lived in a place like this, without me.
She grabbed the knife. It was ninety-seven degrees. A passing semi concussed us in hot air.
“What do I do?” she asked, pinching the blade open. “Growing up, we never stopped for turtles.”
“If it bites me, cut its head off.”
“I won’t,” she said.
“You’ll have to, or it’ll never let go. I saw this on Animal Planet.”
I jogged. She walked. Cars roared by, their draft air like slaps. Between them rose the scream of insects in the dry grass that fringed the fields. The snapper was still on the highway, intact but unmoving. I imagined the pavement was frying it inside its shell.
Darla caught up, and stared at the creature. “You sure?” she asked. “Behead it?”
“Hell, yes.” I darted out and picked the turtle up just behind its middle, then held on tight as it hissed and snapped, and flailed its clawed feet. Darla marched beside me, holding the blade out as if she were going to thrust it into the turtle’s neck whether she had to or not.
“Now, don’t you feel good?” I asked when we made it back to the shoulder. I lifted the animal up, as if presenting a newborn. “Who knew that within a year we’d go from mass-transit nobodies to rural highway gods?”
Darla didn’t even look, but just dropped the knife onto the ground. “I don’t even get to know if I wanted one,” she said, staring into the furrows, crying. “A kid, or even a stupid abortion. I don’t even get to know, you know?”
“Darla, why are you— Why?” I was holding a snapping turtle on a highway outside of Batesville, Mississippi, in the swelter, trying to make the best of things. But Darla wouldn’t let me. She. Because with Darla the fields are always a plague, the air a scorch over wasteland. All there ever is, is the over-and-again regurgitation of Darla, Darla, Darla; is how she’s feeling at that instant, and how I’d better take good note; is the lust to remind her that she’s a terrorist, to remind her that fucking her is like fucking a suicide vest; that fucking her is forever fucking some faceless furlough named fucking Brent, who was a hometown friend of her college roommate; who showed up in Wrightsville Beach after being out-processed from Bragg; who crashed their spring break condo with his combat stories and crippled manhood; who rolled Kite cigarettes and who was built like David and who was a stopwatch lay . . . and who planted in her the seed of a hard, unending cough; a cough which would manifest a few months later, long after he was gone, and long before I fell in love with her; a cough whose legacy is legions of vomit, alongside joint erosion and myalgia and associative vertigo, and red splotches on toilet porcelain and liver seizures and more vomit . . . and who came inside her, came inside. Got to come inside.
I turned from her and put the turtle down in the grass. Stared out into the expanse of cotton and listened to the bugs. Darla’s belief that she would never again do better than me was bullshit. I hated that she would soon figure this out and leave.
“Anyway,” she said, sniffled. “It’s not just the light pollution, it’s the moon.”
“Dar, I’m sorry. I—”
“Those hatchlings in North Carolina? The moon’s supposed to be their beacon to water, but the light pollution distracts. You take halogen flashlights and lead them right.”
I watched the snapper claw through the dry grass, then dive beneath the brown water in the gully. I knelt down and picked up a twig, and poked at the pebbles and bits of safety glass on the shoulder. A minute later, Darla wiped her nose with the heel of her hand, then mouthed the words, Let’s go.
From WE COME TO OUR SENSES. Used with permission of W. W. Norton & Co. Copyright © 2016 by Odie Lindsey.