Earth to Nashville
Linny Nash opened the glass cover of the TV-dinner-stocked island freezer, scanned the fishy-smelling section of the grocery store, which was, at the moment, unoccupied, and pulled the hem of her blouse from her stomach, fanning it rapidly to propel the frigid air up her front and dry the bead of sweat sliding down between her breasts.
Hormones. She hated them.
Linny was still in her early forties. Early- to mid-forties. Not old, anyway. But her body seemed bent on ignoring how she felt, how she wanted to be seen. Constant urination. Sudden, all-consuming hot flashes. A fickle memory. These symptoms would eventually lessen, or maybe the secret was that women just learned to endure them like so much else, but today, as Linny considered stuffing a Salisbury steak dinner under her shirt, she felt her body’s betrayal acutely. Dr. Tran wanted to remove her uterus, a procedure which shouldn’t have mattered now – now that she’d given birth to two daughters and her womb had been vacant for nearly sixteen years. Still, the idea of it, taking away the place where her daughters had become, had a frightening finality to it.
When the hot flash subsided, Linny reminded herself that such worrying was pointless—with or without the procedure, she would conceive no more children anyway—and she pushed her cart to the check-out. She carried her two sacks out through the automatic doors and had to dodge out of the path of a tumbleweed that rollicked inside. It stopped by a display of small, round watermelons. The girl bagging groceries at the first register froze, a can of green beans in her hand, and looked from the tumbleweed to Linny. They shrugged at each other. It wasn’t exactly surprising, given the relentless, bullying Southwest Kansas winds, but neither had seen it happen before.
The weather had turned during her short shopping trip. Bruise-colored thunderheads encroached from the east. Her husband owed their daughter, Jacqueline, a driving lesson today. She hoped they’d decided to stay close to home, where it was likely already raining, but also that Oliver hadn’t used the weather as an excuse to put off another drive. It wasn’t fair to Jacqueline that his fear of the world should keep her immobile, too.
The old Le Sabre stuttered when she turned the key, but didn’t catch. She tried it again and again with the same result. She shouldered open the door, which had a tendency to stick, and stood on the asphalt helplessly. A fat raindrop fell on her forehead. She fetched her purse to find that she’d forgotten her cell phone at home.
“Okay,” she told no one. “I’m an adult.” She headed back toward the entrance, and a large black pickup pulled alongside her, slowing to keep with her pace. The driver’s side window rolled down. The truck was suspended or something; large gaps in the wheel wells were exposing the underside of the vehicle.
“Mrs. Nash?” the driver said. A young man’s arm and head stuck through the open window. He rested his palm on the outside of the door.
She squinted, but it didn’t make the face familiar. She stopped walking, and the truck jerked to a halt.
“It’s me,” he said as she came forward to even their progress once more, “Bailey Rodger.”
Too much time passed before she made the connection. He’d been her older daughter Jules’ boyfriend when Jules died three years ago. That would make him twenty, maybe twenty-one now. She apologized, embarrassed. “You’ve grown.”
The rain fell faster, wetting her face and dotting her blouse. Under her arms there were half-moons of sweat darkening the thin cotton. She would have welcomed the shower – it was cooling her off – but she was more concerned with getting home.
“Do you need a ride?” Bailey asked. He explained that he had witnessed her car trouble and was just leaving from the feed store next door, adding that he was home for Spring Break and already his father had put him to work. Her house wasn’t very far out of his way.
Linny returned to the Le Sabre for her bags. After passing them to him, she had to grip the head rest and the door and rock herself up and into his truck. He reached to help her, taking her forearm. It was the hand of a man, not a boy. When she’d last seen him, fidgeting with the long sleeves of his father’s suit coat on her front step, he had been utterly defined by that ill-fitting, grown-up clothing, a boy shoved into turbulent waters, swimming in the suit as much as the sudden depths of tragedy. He had come to pay his respects. But that suit would fit him now, his shoulders broader, his body thicker, more capable in many ways. Linny closed the door. The rain blew sideways across the windshield and drummed against the roof.
As he drove, he offered her a t-shirt from the backseat. She wiped her face, neck, and arms, then opened it before her. “Texas A&M,” she said, reading the screened-on maroon seal across the chest.
“Yeah.” He drove with both hands exactly at ten and two, though he didn’t seem too concerned about the worsening storm. She guessed such a large truck afforded a greater sense of safety.
“I went to UT,” Linny said and folded the damp shirt into a small square. She placed it in her lap, her hands on top.
“I know,” Bailey said. “Mr. Nash, too. Right?”
He tapped his thumb on the wheel and nodded.
She wanted to ask how he’d remembered something so innocuous, but she’d never even known he’d been told. Jules, of course, had done so. She’d be eighteen now. She’d know where she was going to college in the fall and would have a t-shirt like this of her own. Linny placed his shirt on the back seat.
The windshield wipers swept so quickly that they seemed ready to take flight. It began to hail, the pea-sized ice pinging on the roof and clattering in the bed of the truck. Bailey pulled into a parking lot with a row of covered, quarter-operated car wash stalls. The intensity of the noise dropped as they took refuge in one. They watched in silence, mesmerized. Beyond the stall’s edge, the hail grew from small pieces to golf ball-sized chunks that ricocheted off the pavement. Intermittently, when the wind changed direction, Linny could make out the swing set in the small park across the street, their black rubber seats twisting in the air and flinging haphazardly at the angled beams that held them.
“Earth to Nashville,” Bailey said.
Her eyes focused closer, taking in his waving hand. He laughed.
“What did you say?”
“Earth to—” He cleared his throat and adjusted the air vent so that it blew warm air on her; she hadn’t realized goose bumps had risen on her skin. “You were zoned out. Jules used to say she was in Nashville when she got lost in a thought.”
It had been her husband’s saying first. She hadn’t heard it in a long time.
Linny asked him about school. He said very little, though not the way that some young people did, as if they couldn’t care less to speak about classes. Bailey was not abrupt, just delicate. She understood that her daughter’s death would remain an undercurrent through any conversation they ever had. As a mother, she appreciated the gravity of his measured replies, his respect for Jules, and, as a mother, she regretted the weight he would always carry with him.
He had begun telling her about his parents, how his father had taken on several strange projects. One of them was rabbit breeding. “Rodger Rabbits, he calls it,” Bailey said, shaking his head. “Apparently, he didn’t realize there’s a reason why people say . . . you know, uh, screwing like bunnies.” He offered an apologetic smile.
“Fucking,” Linny said, surprising herself. She laughed. “I’m sorry. But the phrase is fucking like bunnies, right?”
His cheeks brightened, but his smile stretched, and he looked at her as if she’d just transformed into something other than a mother. Maybe she had. “Anyway,” he said, “he’s got way more rabbits than he can sell, and now they’ve gotten out and torn up Mom’s garden. The cats are afraid of them, so they’re no help. Then, my dad, in all his wisdom, decides maybe he should start breeding coyotes to deal with his rabbit problem.”
“Then he’d have a coyote problem,” Linny said.
“A vicious circle.”
The cab of the truck was warm, comfortable, despite the storm around them. She thought she heard a tornado siren, but Bailey didn’t indicate that he did, or he wasn’t concerned. There had been a drive-in theater on the south side of town back in the seventies and eighties where her brother used to take all his dates. She’d gone there only a few times, but she remembered it now, how it felt to sit with a boy in the isolation of his car, where it seemed private until laughter or gasps escaped the open windows of the cars around them, reminders that she wasn’t really alone with whomever.
The hail, as suddenly as it had come on, let up, though the rain persisted. The wind had changed direction again, and now the swings across the street blew directly at them. Something else skated across the park and into the road. It took an erratic path, cartwheeling and somersaulting. It had arms, open flaps, like a tiny windbreaker, blue and splayed as if it had been ripped off of a toddler. Again, the wind changed, and the tiny jacket lifted in the air, spun, and shot out of view.
Linny felt a pang in her core. She stumbled down from the tall truck, catching herself on the opposite wall of the car wash stall. She ran into the rain and was immediately knocked sideways, her hair whipping across her cheeks, her shirt billowing up to her ribs. She blinked against the rain, searching, and caught sight of the garment, blowing along the gutter toward the stop sign at the cross-street. Her leather flats filled with water, and she kicked them off. Behind her, Bailey’s door opened and closed, and his voice carried through the storm: “Come back.”
He reached her just as she grasped the jacket, catching one of its open flaps. He spun her toward him, gripping her upper arms, started to speak and stopped. Over the howling wind and continuing rainfall, he yelled, “Why’d you leave?”
The jacket was not a jacket. It was not even a piece of clothing, but a torn plastic bag. She closed the flaps, but they reopened, and the bag flew from her hands. Bailey tried to pull her back toward the car wash, saying something about how wet it was, about finding her shoes, but she planted her feet. Even though she knew she’d been wrong, she scanned the park and both ends of the street, the sense that she was meant to save something lingering.
Bailey found her shoes and brought them to her. His urgency was gone now, apparently resolved to stand with her in the storm since she showed no sign of moving. He crouched on the sidewalk to slide them onto her feet one at a time, and she placed her hands on his shoulders for support. When he stood, she did not move them, her eyes rising to his face, surprised by his height.
She remembered a stack of photos Jules had taken of Bailey. She’d found them in the days following the car accident and meant to give them to him; they were all of his hands, his neck, his ankles. They were so sensitive, capturing the curves and slopes of his body in such a way that Linny saw for the first time something different in the awkward, quiet boy: an unexpected grace. But she hadn’t offered them to him because, in those photos, she’d also discovered the first evidence of Jules’ blossoming maturity, her own perspective, tenderness that seemed, impossibly, older than her stopped age. She’d kept them all.
Linny lifted onto her toes. She pulled his shoulders, his face, down to her level, as if to share a secret. But she didn’t speak. She brought her cheek to his, and cold rain dripped from his hair onto her nose, her lips. Tasting the mineral-laced rain, she laughed and slipped both hands into his hair, raking her finger tips through the roots from his neck up, sending a spray of water off his head. She should have done this years ago, she thought, though she wasn’t sure what exactly she was doing. When he’d stood on her porch the day of her daughter’s funeral, his youth so exaggerated by his father’s suit, he’d turned to compose himself, and she’d waited in silence, offering nothing a mother should. Comfort, empathy. Forgiveness.
His hands found her back and held her tightly to him. Whatever she was trying to tell him now, he seemed to understand. He seemed to say it all back. But when she let him go, his grip on her tightened. His chin burrowed into her neck, his eyelashes tickling her ear. Then his mouth on her collarbone was warm and firm, not a mistaken brush of the lips, but a kiss, held for at least four seconds before she heard his deep inhale, felt the air fill his chest and his subtle retreat with it. He turned abruptly, and Linny reached a helpless hand to his back, tried to say it was okay that he had kissed her, but instead found her throat tight and incapable of producing sound. When he faced her again, he met her gaze with fierce insistence. “I know I was just a kid, Mrs. Nash, but I think only kids really love.”
As soon as the words left his mouth, an image formed: Jules was five. Oliver had taught her how to say I love you for lip-readers, in case he should go deaf overnight and never hear her voice again. Elephant shoes was the phrase. In the image, she kept bringing her lower lip to her upper teeth, testing the v of love and the ph of elephant. Her eyes grew wide. “It is the same!” For weeks, when Linny and Oliver tucked her into bed, she would hold fingers to their lips very seriously, then mouth, Elephant shoes, and the two of them would mouth it back.
Following the funeral, for an awful, selfish moment, Linny had grieved over how limited Jules’s experiences had been, even her lack of boyfriends. But the pictures of Bailey had proven her wrong. She believed him now, just as she had known then, that her daughter had not missed being in love.
Linny squinted at the gray sky. “Looks like it’s letting up.”
A few minutes later, Bailey pulled into her driveway.
Linny thanked him. She said, “I have something for you. Come by while you’re still in town, okay?” She hopped down and looked back at him, taking her grocery bags.
Bailey nodded. For a moment, she believed she’d see him again soon. But his eyes darted from hers, and then his hands gripped the wheel. This was a goodbye, she understood. It was the only thing left between them.
“Really,” she said. “You won’t forget?”
“No. I won’t forget.”