Joyland

The South |

Recipe for Marble Cake

by Hallie Elizabeth Newton

I was in Texas one summer and found myself sneaking into a famous designer’s backyard with a bisexual engineer and a carpenter who used to model for Abecrombie & Fitch. We all took our clothes off so we wouldn’t get tan lines and played Navy Seal in the pool, this game where we tie up our arms and legs with twine and jump into the deep end to see who lasts the longest without drowning. It's fun, but left marks around my wrists, so I sat out, watching the other two float around. Texas was supposed to be a stop-through on the way to somewhere else.

The fence around the yard was tall enough to suntan naked without getting caught, so I laid out on the designer's porch. Under a lounge chair, I saw what I thought was some sort of prehistoric bug moving toward me, and I was frightened for a second, but it ended up to be just a ball of dust, pushed along by the wind. I suddenly craved oppressive humidity. No one was watching me. I tore some grass out of the ground and tasted it. I don't tell people when I leave.

*

In the airplane, I watched the young man beside me drink a cup of vanilla yogurt. The young man smiled at me when he set the container down. He sells equipment that helps cancer patients. He said he gets teased at the company because he’s the youngest and was never in the Army Rangers. The rest of the employees are Rangers. I asked how he got the job, then, and he said: “Navy Seals. The training is easy.” He said, “Too easy.” His qualifications confused me, but also made me feel safe.

“I’m an environmental physiologist,” I lied. “Do Navy Seals really tread water for three hours at a time?”

He said yeah, that it was easy, and I asked if they drowned him and he said yes, until he was about to die, and I asked if it was scary and he said no, that drowning is the most painless way to go. “The difference between a circus animal and a pet is the size of the training, not the paw print, every tiger owner will tell you that,” he said.

I asked if he owned tigers and he said no. He asked me if I owned tigers and I said, “I am an otter who hides in water,” and at the end of the flight, he one-handedly retrieved his luggage from the overhead compartment, and then mine, too. I followed him to his truck. His legs were like two tongue depressors wedged together, too brittle to hold up a house. “Where should we go, here in Atlanta?” he asked me, still smiling.

*

He and I walked together through a romantic cemetery. I stopped in front of a gravestone that had a recipe for marble cake as its epitaph. I took the Seal's hand and ran it over the etched words. He closed his eyes. “Some go before their time,” he said, “and it's like a rain storm when the sun shines. 'The devil is beating his wife', ever hear that?” I looked at the pond a few yards away. My friends and I used to get stoned and go fishing in this cemetery. We never knew why they stocked the pond. Someone was playing fetch with a pit bull.

I kicked the marker and the Navy Seal restrained me, grabbing my waist and wrists. I decided he was the type who liked saving lives based on his own need to be saved through affirmation.

“You're not a physiologist,” he said when he got me down to the ground. He started a round of soft pinches at my hip and I laid perfectly still. The pit bull must have thought the commotion to be abuse, so it ran over to break up the fight along with its master. The Seal quickly relinquished.

*

It was the kind of bar that didn’t offer glass cups because people might use them to bludgeon someone else in a bar fight, so I drank vodka from clear plastic with the dog owner, my leg over his lap and luggage under the stool. I began to suspect the place was mostly empty because we were there. I watched him throw back a drink.

“I wanna win again,” the dog owner cried drunkenly. “I wanna shine again. Shine.”

“You’ll win, you’ll win, you’ll get them right between the eyes,” said the bartender.

“I don’t want them right between the eyes, Lucas. Lucas, I wanna get ‘em down.”

“Ok,” Lucas said, moving to the other end of the bar. “You’ll get ‘em down.”

“I never win anymore.” He turned back to me. “Hi.”

“Well hi,” I said. It was foggy outside, and nighttime.

He wanted to know if the Navy Seal would come looking for him. When I said no, he became spirited and invited me to his home. The pit bull was waiting for us in the car. I liked that dog. It was very quiet.

We got in his white Chevy Cobalt with me in the driver’s seat. The interior was felt and cigarette ash, and I considered my proximity to Satan's garden. He began telling me all of the things he's lost in his life. “But I wanna win again.”

“You still have your dog,” I said.

“You’re a young thing,” he said back.

Eddie Money played when the car started. I don't know if it was on the radio or if it was a recording. I don't know if the car had tape or cd parts. The dog owner watched out the window, sullen, while I drove down the highway beside a weak-looking forest. He pointed to his highway exit, outside the Perimeter. I took it and swerved too hard, went off the highway, and the Cobalt crumpled into a tree with ease.

*

Sparkles of glass had stuck to my skin, and fell off in little clusters when I stood up through the window. The car was sideways, and all its insides were splayed out like dissections. We must have flipped. I had a sudden feeling that I was inside of an insurance commercial, because everything I could see was essential to what had just happened. The highway lights are easy enough to follow. I moved debris around the crash, pretending to look for something important. All the tiny torn flag shapes of the dog owner's shirt clung to auto parts and wettish upholstery, leading the way to him. He was underneath a hunk of metal. I didn't touch him; his face was completely intact, but the rest was smashed flat the way clothes lay without the body in it. He said something like, “They've all got grease in their pockets. So svelte.” I said I'll get some help, and a part of me found this to be hilarious. No one was anywhere. No Navy Seal to pull him out of the deep end. I have no idea where the dog went. Dogs are survivors. Some wind up in other states after a tornado. My suitcase was by the tree. “I'm going right now,” I said.

For about thirty minutes, highway lights guided me up the ramp and down a poor street with power lines. It wasn't until a car's flashers found me that I realized how hungry I was. The car was filled with three black girls who asked if everything was alright. I let go of my suitcase and I said, “Yes, I just need a small ride.”