AJ Cann – Amplification (via Flickr)
A Story by Adam Soto
JOAN AND SERENA were having a time. Jesse, Serena’s husband, thought it might help if the cousins got some time together. It’d been years, all of what they could call adulthood, since the two had shared much more than a lunch. In July, Jesse mailed Joan a check to cover the gas from Austin to Albuquerque to visit them. He’d try to stay out of their way. Joan was crawling out from under a collapsed engagement then; Serena, Jesse couldn’t be sure what exactly was bothering her that summer, but the night they cleared their grad school materials from the guestroom, which had functioned as a study ever since they’d moved in together, he noticed his wife sleeping easier, more fully submerged.
The house they rented was adobe the color of pink moonstone and within walking distance of the university. Serena was studying to become a psychiatric nurse and Jesse was finishing a dissertation on the Coriolis Effect. PTSD. Wind. The world was changing and it had effects that each was determined to understand. It was Jesse who suggested they put work aside a few days early so they weren’t hung up on some incomplete thought the whole time Joan was visiting. They borrowed a buckwheat mattress from a friend and opened the whitewashed blinds to let the sun warm the floors. The high desert breeze was invited in through the open backdoor.
Jesse’s blue heeler, Sadie, enjoyed the arrangement tremendously, and, in the days leading up to Joan’s arrival, was constantly coming in and out of the house pushing her head against the couple’s hands to join her at the chicken pen to watch over the newest round of chicks. Sadie was from LA, another life. The birds were part of living in Albuquerque, having land, even if you rented. The last batch, half the birds turned out to be good layers and the rest they gave to two sisters in town. In the evening, when the sun fell off the aimless veranda, Jesse and Sadie would corral the baby birds into the house and arrange them in the bathtub, an old pewter basin. Against the black the chicks looked like dandelions or tiny suns dancing somewhere in the darkened universe. The game made Serena nervous. Sadie’s kindness to the birds was like a crime against nature in Serena’s opinion. “Not all of life is vicious,” Jesse said. Viciousness, as far as Serena was concerned, might as well be justice in the animal world, it was so common. Without it, nothing natural would ever seem fair.
Joan arrived on Thursday evening. Since Roswell, she said, she’d driven with the windows down. She was barefoot on her high arches on the stone chip drive. Serena greeted her. Her white CRV, barely alive, was caked in a fine, silvery powder. The same dust tinted her sunglasses and messy bun. From afar, she could’ve been old. Really, she was quite young—too young to have felt life’s teeth after her already, Serena thought when she saw her.
When Serena was fifteen she read Joan Like Water for Chocolate from start to finish sitting in the cool silt of their grandfather’s cellar floor. Joan was ten, awakening. It was a secret. After one particularly lusty scene, the girls lifted their shirts to their chins and swam across the basement sand like angelic fish. Serena saw Joan, at twenty-four, understood now the distinct condition of heartbreak which had colored that book and all the books she had recommended to her ever since. She had tried to prepare her and here it was, a broken heart, a shaky acting career, that’s all it took. But Serena thought this familiarity made her cousin look distinguished and interesting now, too. When Joan was an infant Serena had said, “No, my baby,” and everyone laughed and let her swaddle the newborn until she started running with her in the yard. “It was only a game,” Serena had to explain when her parents yelled at her. The game centered around a great, catastrophic deluge, of which she and her baby Joan would be the only ones to survive. Her mother explained shaken babies and Serena was terrified of Joan’s fragility.
“It’s even more beautiful than the pictures,” Joan said.
“Jesse’s trying to get the landlord to sell.”
“What do you think?”
“I think it’s already time for a drink,” Serena said.
“I’ll take a glass of this sky,” Joan said and hoisted up her duffel bag from the drive. The bag was teal, from the Atlanta Olympic games. It had a mascot sewn to its side. There’d been a bomb that summer, a broken ankle. Sadie appeared and licked Joan’s calves.
“Dinner’s on already,” Serena said.
She tugged at the screen door and it fell open like a fainting damsel.
“Smells like Jesse’s already having fun,” Joan laughed.
Miles Davis listed from inside. Piney marijuana smoke. They walked in. Jesse, standing on an Afghan rug, pinched the cherry from his joint and opened his arms. The rug had come from his brother, who died soon after mailing it from Kabul. For dinner, Jesse had brought the garden in. Rosemary on lamb chops. Blue potatoes. A thin leek soup. He took his compliments like his whiskey, with a flush and a shutter. He was a quaggy lagoon of doubt and kindness. Serena swam laps in it, like a synchronized swimmer with no partner. She loved him. He found charm in her bookishness, comfort when she acted blasé. She liked his stoned little smile, too.
Sadie was indifferent to people food. She’d been spared the flavor and so the animal simply folded herself into a patient pile on the rug and napped. Joan admitted she’d never met a dog who didn’t covet scraps.
“Leonard fed the dog everything,” Joan said. “Dinnertime was atrocious. If it can be avoided, why start?”
“I think some people are afraid they’re depriving them of something,” Serena said.
“Sounds like something stupid Leonard would think,” Joan said.
The gluttonous act ended and the four sat on the back porch and listened to a distant stream. Blonde, reedy grass arched toward them; inside the reeds, insects played their bodies like wood instruments.
“I’m easy,” Joan said. “You guys can even go into school if you want—I’ll make my way to the plaza or the farmer’s market or something.”
“No, no,” Serena said. “You’re our ticket out of academia. We’re not getting shit done this week. We’ve made a promise. Right, Jesse?”
Jesse nodded solemnly, loaded a bowl.
“I do have one request,” Joan said, playful conspiracy in her voice. “It’s a little weird.”
Joan was weird. She’d been a regional actress for a time. In Austin, she taught Shakespeare to fifth graders, the most interesting people she’d ever met, she claimed. She wore ubiquitous circle skirts cut from old tablecloths. She was vocal about how much of her journal accounted for the way certain colors and smells made her feel. Her favorite food was Frito pie.
“What do you mean?” Serena asked.
Joan settled the orbit of her skirt and leaned forward, toward the reeds, the tiny players in their shells. She said, “I’d like to take you guys to a Friends Meeting.”
“You’re a Quaker now?” Serena said, trying not to sound scandalized. She should’ve gone for amazement, but religion, faith, Christianity, they’d grown up with it, a family curse. It’d driven their mothers mad. Spirituality, even from the East, was a gateway drug. Their whole childhoods they’d been accused and shamed. Sixteen, a virgin, Serena was brought before a tribunal of bloated baby boomer women to answer for sins she did not commit. Eventually, the pastor appeared in the driveway and she had to run away for a few days.
“No,” Joan said. “I go for silence. It’s not what most people think.”
Serena turned to Jesse.
“I like silence,” Jesse said.
“Of course you do,” Serena said.
“What?” he said, prosecuted.
“We don’t have to go,” Joan said. “I just thought. Well—,” she continued, but Serena raised a palm, peaceably.
“It sounds, great, Joan,” said Serena. “I’m just messing with Jesse. I want to experience this with you.”
“Are you sure?” Joan said.
“Positive,” Serena said.
“Me too,” Jesse said.
The bowl went around like communion. Jesse talked about wind patterns, how they were changing.
Jesse’s brother’s open casket did more to conceal death than a closed one, more than a stoic military-grade urn, more than a decade’s-long MIA status would have, because all that remained of death on the day of the wake was a blotted scorch on the left edge of his brother’s body’s mouth, not unlike the graphite stains he used to wear on his chin after nervously chewing pencils as a boy. He was beautifully shaven. Even his acne was gone. Given the autopsy report, it was clear some professional must’ve engineered and placed a support structure in his head to raise his cheeks and skull from the dead. Their mother had spent a fortune and was so pleased. Worst of all was when Serena saw his brother and started cursing—on his behalf, he believed, because he couldn’t be angry and try to grieve at the same time—and his mother justified the replica of his brother in the box by saying God had made him whole again in heaven anyway.
After the funeral, Jesse and Serena flew back to New Mexico and didn’t talk about it. Once or twice Serena told him, “Let it out, you have to,” and Jesse told her she wasn’t a therapist and if she had been she wouldn’t be allowed to practice on him anyway. A month into being an only child he started to build bicycles. A hobby, a distraction. He thought he might have been giving Serena the impression he was sublimating. She left him alone. Joan’s first morning in he suggested they all go for a ride.
The bicycles were modeled after Dutch cruisers. Jesse’s was blue, Serena’s candy apple red, Joan’s forest green. The tires were tan, and the bikes had baskets and rattling mudguards. Joan thought them precious inventions.
Riding, it astonished her that July should be anything but pure misery. Living part of her summer on the seat of a bicycle, the desert lilac ushered into her hair and a drowsing troop of bees began following her everywhere, like respectful suitors or kinder ghosts. On their first ride they went to the farmer’s market and drank avocado, honeydew drinks with alcohol and a rim of Lucas. A few hours later they came back for the sheer joy of the fruit. On their second visit a woman stopped Joan from taking a picture of a watermelon stand. It was against policy, but she couldn’t explain why.
The next morning, they gave the bikes a rest and Serena drove them to Georgia O’Keefe’s Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu and Joan spent two hours sketching different spots in her journal. That night she lay on her back in a hot mineral spring staring up at the stars. Sodium bi-carbonate vaulted her upwards and tickled the insides of her ears. She heard nothing but fizz. Her ex was an actor too. One day his intrepid performances, for which he was always being cast in something, walked off stage and suddenly there was this strident man in her living room. If she could do it all over again she wouldn’t, or at least she’d have been the one to call it off, or, in the very least, have stopped answering his calls sooner when he just wanted to hear her voice again. Floating, she longed to be old like Georgia, to paint a mountain enough times to own it. Though, simultaneously, in her was also a growing readiness to stay young for a while and see what other interesting acts, inglorious or illuminating, might need committing just in case. It’d been three months since the venue cashed the reception deposit. “You know? What the hell,” she thought she could be prone to saying someday.
From the spring she moved to the sauna, a cedar embrace. Only Jesse joined her; Serena said she needed to cool down. Jesse sat across from her in his trunks, swatting at the vapors, his body hair aglow under the faded ceiling bulb.
“Things have been different lately. I don’t know if Serena tells you this kind of stuff, but, I mean, I don’t want to be a bummer, but I’m worried about her,” he said.
Joan wrung out her hair. “She’s in grad school too,” she said.
“I don’t think it’s school.”
“Then what do you think it is?” Joan said. Her fingernails were soft, like the shells of boiled shrimp. She unhinged a hangnail that’d been bothering her, flicked it into the dark.
Jesse couldn’t be sure, the vapors were heavy, he’d smoked in the car, but he wondered if bringing Joan had been a mistake, if he’d invited a cousinly covenant into his home and if Joan’s bitterness over her ex would seep into Serena, if he’d really stepped in it.
“I’m sure she’s fine. How are you doing?” he said. “I can’t believe Leonard. What an asshole.”
Saturday morning rolled in. The closest Friends Meeting House was in riding distance. Serena knew the building and led the way. It was adobe, like everything else in town, pueblo-style. Inside, men and women of differing ages and ethnicities were seated on benches. A few kids sat around, bored but quiet. No one really looked at anyone. Joan motioned to a bench near the door.
Having received little more instruction than to relax and enjoy herself, Serena could not figure out what to make of any of it. For what it was worth, it really was just silence, it really was just sitting. The sun leaked from a skylight. But what were these people thinking? What private divination were they conjuring in her midst? What common weakness, she thought. In the very least Jesse hadn’t fallen for God. She was grateful. Yoga, meditation, she tolerated, but this kind of transcendence? So calm and meek and plausible, Joan could be doomed.
On one of their first dates Jesse had asked Serena if she was interested in psychology to help herself. If she was one of those. He’d heard it was common. How unfair, she’d thought, she could never accuse him of studying wind out of selfishness or self-interest.
The morning floated around. A cough startled Serena’s blood. In her own personalized closeness with the universe, Joan could be seen crying. Quietly, demonstratively. Tears trickled down her cheeks the way jackrabbits’ ears are long. Her visit had moved forward and forward and forward, never once reaching back into the past the way Serena had hoped it would, opening them to one another as they were as kids. Each night Joan and Sadie had turned in so early there was little hope of sharing anything real. Her cousin had her own adult mechanisms now, Quakerisms, evidently. Serena had to look away from her. There was Jesse, eyes closed, mouth shut. He’d been their constant companion. Another impediment. How was she to help them both? she wondered. Jesse had a wife and the weather, a dead brother. His case was simple. It was clear to Serena that what she needed to do for him was remain the same forever.
It wasn’t an interruption, more like all the creaking and breathing of the otherwise silent space hardening into a human voice. A man. Really, actually quaking. He was a few rows up, standing in his blue jeans and guayabera shirt, so much Spanish in his voice too. Serena listened, her ears starved, drooling. He’d read a newspaper article he couldn’t understand. It was about a special particle that was missing in the universe that tied everything together. They were building machines to find this particle by spinning very fast. Millions of dollars had already been spent. He couldn’t wrap his head around it. What for? There was too much talk of physics to figure any of it out. Even the smallest parts of existence were made of even smaller structures. When would it all stop?
“But as I sit here, I think I do understand what they’re after. They are looking for love, these scientists,” he said. “God’s love. The invisible force that puts everything together.”
Joan gasped. Serena took her hand.
Joan and Serena and Jesse shook hands with their neighbors. There was fresh bread. Joan slathered a bread heel with a divinely salted homemade butter. She felt drawn to the man who’d spoken, but it was best not to bring up things said in meetings. Instead, she eased into a conversation with an elderly woman who told her the poppies were in full bloom.
“But today will probably be one of the last days to see them,” she said. “They won’t get enough water this year to last much longer. Tomorrow, maybe, they’ll have started to wilt. Who knows.”
The three agreed they had another ride in them before lunch, especially after eating all of that bread, and rode out to the field twenty minutes away. Joan caught it first, like a fire in the distance—a yellow carpet of the little flower cups draped at the foot of a mountain range. Up close, the poppies numbered in the hundreds, thousands. The bees left her hair and joined their brothers in the field. She parked her bike on its stand and walked into the flowers. In the center of each flower was a little speck of rust color. She turned to Serena and Jesse, who too were wading into the flowers, and thanked them. The next day, she’d get in her SUV and return to the Austin.
On the ride back there was talk of a picnic by the stream and a swim. It was the best possible thing they could do. It was an important, beautiful plan. As they pulled up to the house, Sadie was whimpering by the mailbox. Jesse leapt from his bike.
Dark, sticky blood matted her fur. He fleeced through the fur in search of a wound.
“I don’t see anything! I don’t know where she’s hurt!” he shouted, looking back at his wife.
“It’s not her blood, Jesse,” she said.
He watched Serena run around to the back of the house. Joan followed her. He picked up Sadie and they staggered across the scrubby lawn. In the backyard the women were stopped a meter from the pen, at their feet was the bright explosion of blood and yolk-yellow feathers. Some of the chicks were damp husks. Others were completely disappeared. A talon. A pinkness. Set down, Sadie wouldn’t get anywhere near it.
On his knees, Jesse rustled through the grass and the feed, found nothing, not a single living bird.
Sadie, tail tucked, swept around the yard, shaking and ashamed. It was the most complex display of emotion Jesse had ever witnessed. The dog buried her bloody snout into the grass and cried.
“I don’t understand,” Jesse said.
Joan leaned down and wiped the blood from Sadie’s eyes with the hem of her skirt. The stream whispered. She’d looked old when she first arrived, Jesse remembered. He scanned the yard for Serena, but she was nowhere. The world was viscous. Some people even had the honor to grow old in it.
Adam Soto is a writer and musician living and working in Austin, TX. He earned an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and was the recipient of a Michener-Copernicus fellowship. His work appears or is forthcoming in Glimmer Train, The Kenyon Review, fields and Versal Journal. He is currently at work on a novel and a multimedia serial called EverythingInTheSkyBelongsToYou.com