Joyland

The Midwest |

Young Ronnie in The Mirror

by Cameron Stewart

edited by Bryan Hurt

These walls have mice. They're pillaging the plaster and rooming in my boots. I can’t even sleep, so it’s all prescriptionless mercy pills for yours truly. Nights of lamplight and faulty prayer. Who’s coming to save me? Peggy’s with a dentist, Kimi’s in Austin, and Becks-not-Becky still hasn’t arrived. I’m pathetic and thirsty, sure, but that doesn’t mean I can’t sing. But I shouldn’t. Why give the neighbors, those raucous puritans, something else to complain about? Maybe Townes had it wrong, and this isn’t all a game. Country’s such a salty balm, anyway. I’ll stick with silence. 

Behind the Air Bag Inn is a toothy hot terrier pit. Molar stopped fighting because the dog cries made him all tender. Molar, the man, owns Jeffrey, the dog, and they care for each other, far from Detroit, in the woods. No more fights. I’m happy for them. It’s bonfire madness with those two. You leave their place stinking of smoke with purple under your eyes, bruises of insomnia.

Molar keeps eating Wendy’s on lonely drive-thru nights. I wish he’d cancel them via phone call to yours truly. I’d help him put the burger down. He says it’s the fries that get him, the salty convenience of it all. Nothing a few of these won’t curb, I say, nibbling down some bandit pharma. Not for me, he says. No way, José. Who the fuck’s José, I ask.

When the mice need their space, I lie on my car and treat myself to the stars hung over the Air Bag. The highway’s twenty feet back. I’ve ridden that pocked chute to Ohio, through traffic cop flatness, reaching Tennessee when the sun’s belly up. One time out here I saw a woman carrying her kitty in a gift basket. It purred with the plastic fruit and peanuts. Truckers chime, jostle their pockets for keys for entry for sleep. You’d think I’d get tired, but rodent paranoia and general dread make me a very lively man. It’s August.

One night, hammocked on my hood, I meet a girl. Don’t ask how. Cumin, she says. Comin’ where? I say. Call me Cumin. Come in? Okay, fine. We blast the AC and drink pop still cold from the K where she bought it. Perfect. But I’d never tell her as much. There’s a bar of dissatisfaction set long ago by fathers drunk and founding that a guy around here needs to maintain. I try to do my part.

When I get her name right, she plops one on me. It’s enough to make Jeffrey jealous, that rascal. We’re in my room, 9Q, and somehow my clothes are off, hers are on, and we’re standing before this six-foot mirror too polished to belong here. She stands behind me and puts her fingers in my hair. This, she says, is the goofy part. It’s what feeds your jokes. My dark wraps around her fingers like DNA. These, she says, hands over my eyes, are the prisons for light. You trap it in here and never let it out. She kisses my left eye. She smells like used sofa. I love her so. This, she says, hovers her palm over my nose. Is where you trick your brain into remembering. Things fly up there and make you sad. This, she says, traces my lips with her thumb, back and forth. You put these on anything that’ll let them, then regret it later. We catch each other’s eye in the mirror and she blushes. I’m already black and white and red all over. She puts her hands over my mouth and I cough into them. She doesn’t say anything about my mouth, just keeps both hands over it like she’s holding in a storm, and for a second the lamps get brighter and the room sort of shines on us. Then she goes to my neck, where she squeezes with red purpose. This is how you learn to love someone, she says. And the air shoots out and my eyes go swimming. This is where you love me the most. She’s right! That’s just the place. I’m swaddled across Death’s property line, a hearty row of poplars or whatever the hell Death planted, and I know I will love her always. She lets go and I spittle a little. By the time she’s at my knees I’m weak and gushy and in need of a strong bath. We do it together, the bathing. In those bursting suds, I pop at the jokes she makes. I feel a vibrant warm drunk in my belly, a three-beer embrace. She reclines while I sponge with a hefty cloud of motel cloth torn off our bed. Yes, it’s our bed. We share it but don’t own it. Together we fall into soapy water in a grimy bathroom in the middle, I think, of Detroit. God help us.

Here’s something. One time we brought Jeffrey to the pool. It was members-only. Molar and I weren’t members. We didn’t normally country club. So we snuck in via the sand trap out back and made like real property owners once inside. It wasn’t the pit bull that freaked them, no. It was the steel-world slums they smelt wafting off us, making the lifeguard, a flimsy burnt thing barely 14, blow his whistle so hard his daddy would blush. We jumped in the shallow end. Molar was a good swimmer and our dog a chlorine hound of the highest breed. We dipped our heads under screaming. They thought we had drowned and gone to martini heaven. Three of their beefiest guards hugged us up the steps, onto the cement, where they read us off a list of our golf sins. Jeffrey, the whole time, did sassy laps in the blue.

This is Austin, I think. Scraps of yellow land burnt orange. The vista is singed, but still it sings. Hello, Townes. Come back down here and make us cry. You owe us that much. I’m baked on a raft I don’t own near another room I rent. Cumin’s gone. Or she told me to. Suggested it in her vague space age lingo. My solar years are all wrong, she said. I need to get me some gravity or I might just keep blowing across state lines. A girl in an inflatable dragon paddles up to me, points at my face, and asks what it’s for. I tell her I don’t know.

That night in the bathroom mirror I teach me to myself. I start with the hair. This, I say, is what you’re losing. And fast. This, I say, over the eyes, is where you keep her, where she stays. Then I put both hands on my mouth and forget who I am.