Short Story November 2004

Between Here and the Yellow Sea

Coach and I are driving to Los Angeles to kidnap his daughter
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Interstate 10 after midnight, westbound. El Paso now. Coach Duprene says he can drive till morning. Blank asphalt rolls ahead, but I'm seeing Amanda, picturing the way she looked in high school: small-chested in a cheerleading uniform, auburn hair, green eyes, freckles dusting her nose. Grasslands give way to desert, with purple and orange barely visible, hallucinated colors. Then such immensity of night over flat, featureless land that I can see how certain people could fear open spaces.

"You see that?" Coach asks.

"What?"

He uses a bottle of Jose Cuervo to trace an arc across the windshield. "All the stars are gone. It got pitch black."

I stick my head out the window, into explosive air, and he's right. Around us is nothing but darkness, and even though the sky's invisible, I know a storm is coming. "It's going to rain."

He passes the tequila. "How you know?"

I tap a scar under my chin. "Broken jaw."

The metal in my lower jaw twitches, something that happens only when the air is charged with electromagnetism. Steel stitches an X in my mandible because when I was fourteen, convinced of my own possibilities, I tried out for the football team. That was seven years ago. Coach still coached the Port Arthur Toreadors back then. I never made it past tryouts, but I went to a lot of games. I'd be the boy sitting quiet, peeking between loud fathers in front to watch red-and-blue cheerleaders kick and clap. My favorite cheerleader was Coach Duprene's daughter, Amanda. Honey-skinned. Her eyes closed when she smiled. The kind of cheerleader who paid attention, actually cared about the score. She'd follow the game while the rest of her squad twisted their hair or discussed what to wear to the after party.

"You said it," Coach says, and I wonder if I was thinking out loud. He nods at the windshield, where rain spatters. I'm used to thinking out loud, especially in a moving truck. At this time I still work for Lone Star Environmental, in Port Arthur, and my days are spent driving back roads with a clipboard, noting phosphorus and ammonia levels in the watershed, making sure farmers aren't spreading chicken shit over their fields. In the evening you might catch me at Petro Bowl or Chili's, trying to buy drinks for grade school teachers and secretaries, but at work I drive alone, five to seven hours, and on those days I tend to narrate my thoughts, turning observations into stories. Rilke wrote, "Love your solitude, for solitude is difficult." I remind myself not to think out loud.

Rain builds, and before we reach Las Cruces a torrent lets loose, hiding the road under a curtain of water. Metal writhes in my jawbone. The wipers don't do much, and Coach leans close, squinting. He takes a pill from a brown plastic bottle.

"It's late enough." He swallows. We pull over onto the shoulder, rain drumming. He slouches against the window and tugs his baseball cap down. Coach doesn't coach anymore, but he receives a generous stipend from Port Arthur High and the honorary title of athletic coordinator, which is what eight district championships and three state titles get you in East Texas. I watch him breathe, softened, rain making the windows look like creeks, and I try to connect this man sleeping so calmly with the man I used to see, the fuming, granite-faced commander on the edges of hallways, on the sidelines of a game. I try to figure how he got from there to here. I do that because at this age one of my essential habits is to look for causal links, find stories, and I spend a great deal of time combing through the past, as if answers were there. I'm at an age when I drive in circles, and I take the words of poets and famous men at face value. I'm four years out of high school, living in the house my grandmother left me, and not until sometime after Coach and I reach Los Angeles will I stop looking for answers.

My cheek rests against the window, because it's cold and dulls my jaw's throbbing. Coach starts to snore.

I was there the day she left. I mowed lawns back then, and on that Sunday I worked the yard next to Coach Duprene's house. A red Chevy Blazer parked in their driveway. Four boys I knew from school were in that truck. The back end sagged with boxes and bags, a surfboard. High school was over, and they were all moving to California. Coach Duprene watched from the porch and didn't wave as the truck rolled away.

Someone, we can now say, should have stopped that Chevy. It's no secret. She makes movies under the name Mandy LeRock. I've seen only one.

Lightning flashes over a plain, lighting my reflection in the rainy window, and I realize I'm not telling the whole story. There are two stories here. In the first I am sitting beside Coach Duprene in his truck. We are driving to Los Angeles to kidnap his daughter.

In the second story, the reflection in the glass, I'm a teenager named Bobby who lives with two generations of women, a mother and her mother, on empty stretches of grazing land. This boy sleeps in a room with no air-conditioner and mows lawns for spending money. He's a student athlete, but only runs track. His grades are good, and he draws the same picture over and over in his notebooks, from every angle: a Navy destroyer taking counterfire off the coast of South Vietnam.

What joins the stories, their causal link, is Amanda Duprene. We're lab partners freshman year. Biology class is after lunch. I can't stomach dissection exercises, so Amanda handles the cutting. I find refuge from ammonia and formaldehyde in the scent of her hair and neck: shampoo, lotion, sweat. On Fridays she wears her cheerleading uniform. A lot of these long days are eased by watching the sun move over the backs of Amanda's legs, from one o'clock till two. This is the girl I'm searching for.

Later a second search will occur.

It will be undertaken after we get back home, by an investigative firm in Houston whose specialty is locating people. They're called Reunions, Inc.; they charge me $300 and take two months to produce results. Their report is mailed to me in a big white envelope with the company logo printed on it: two open palms cradling three people, who hold hands under a shining yellow sun.

For now, though, outside Las Cruces, we seem to be parked under a waterfall. Coach snores. I should have brought something to read. This is the snug, familiar isolation I experience at work, when I'm eating my lunch in a truck cab and reading, say, a Saint-Exupéry book about desert pilots. Then I steer the company truck over dirt roads that go on for miles and miles without passing a house, hazy gold cordgrass and grainfields yawning into the horizon; checking groundwater for ammonia spikes and algae blooms; turning to the empty seat beside me, telling my stories.

The countryside ripples with superheated colors. Surfaces look like they were cleared with explosives. We cleaned up at a truck stop in Tucson, and I'm labeling things with brochures we got there. Cholla cactus and greasewood. Sagebrush. Saltbush. All the clouds stack up over one particular peak of the Maricopa Mountains, like a volcano's portrait. At Theba we decide to fish for our dinner. It's late afternoon; a tiny branch of the Gila River splits high green meadow grass.

Coach starts going through a pile of tarp and tools in the bed of his truck. "Can you cast open-face?" he asks.

"No. I don't know anything about fishing."

"Really?"

"No."

"Well. What do you know?"

"Nothing."

"I think I got a closed reel in here. How'd you grow up in Port Arthur and not learn to fish?"

I shrug and let Coach shake his head while he digs for a pole. How should I answer him? Should I tell stories about growing up hearing guys tell fishing stories? The terminology was like secret passwords to me: leaders, streamers, spinners. The grass is tall and soft. The creek makes watery noise and gathers light.

Coach finds a pole and says, "I'll set the line for you."

He shows me how to attach a stone sinker. He demonstrates the best way to get a neon rubber salamander on the hook. The push-button cast is simple. I flick my wrist and the salamander flies, trailing a shimmery filament. Then here we are, Coach Andre Duprene and Robert Corresi, fishing—illegally, I guess—among Joshua trees and painted stones. I watch Coach's wrists, the way his hand starts to call the line back almost as soon as it's cast, and I mimic his movements.

Any coach will tell you that mimicry and repetition are the fundamental learning tools. But what could you mimic if you were a boy waking up for seventeen years in rooms choked by perfumes and powders? Say, for instance, every time your clothes got hung on the line, bras and billowing panties flanked them—the mother's things, skimpy with lace; the grandmother's wide-bottomed and as big as sails. Say certain things were always on the periphery of your senses: the smell of wet stockings, the reds of lipstick, tampon wrappers. You burned yourself countless times on untended curling irons.

A lot of the time you're nervous and don't know why. Biology class is the highlight of your days. Time waiting for the bus after school, cheerleaders watching athletes, graceful hunks of movement on sunburnt fields.

In the spring of your fourteenth year, two weeks after you've read In Our Time, you try out for the football team, and Eric Dempsey breaks your jaw. Next fall Amanda's mother will die.

I'm so lost in reverie that the pole almost flies out of my hand. "Whoa, whoa," I say, and Coach calls for me to pull up, jerk the rod, reel him in. The line flashes, stirs the water, stops. It goes slack and comes back with the salamander shredded. Coach holds the hook up.

"He got a piece of you. When you feel the tug, give it a jerk, make the hook catch. Then work him awhile. Let him wrestle and get the hook dug in worse." Coach puts another salamander on and returns to his spot, about fifty feet away. That tug on the line exhilarates me. For the rest of the evening I've got the pole in my hands, smiling like a goon. Coach catches two trout and I lose two more.

We cook them over a fire that Coach builds in a clearing. He found hot sauce under some clothes in his truck. The sun is almost down. Nine o'clock now. Blue hues.

"Smells good," I say.

"These're fine." Coach has a new pint of Jose Cuervo. The fish pop and crackle. "Well," he says, "I guess we'd better get straight on how we're going to do it."

I nod. The fire makes our faces orange and jumpy.

What we come up with is to locate the address taken from a videotape I have. The address is for American XXXtasy, the company that makes Amanda's movies. We start there. Find her. Coach stole chloroform from the chemistry lab. Then, he says, he'll hire a deprogrammer. Apparently, a lot of people had to be deprogrammed in the seventies, and Coach has much faith in this idea.

We sit around a waning fire, sharing the night's second pint of Jose Cuervo. I'm not used to drinking hard stuff. Usually it's just Heineken, while I try to talk to secretaries at Petro Bowl, amid the banging racket of tenpins. "Where do these bottles keep coming from?"

"I went shopping before we left." He lights a cigarette. Coach wears good cowboy boots, maroon eelskins, and a denim shirt he got when he was thinner. He's retained a full head of sandy-gray hair, still kept in its boxy crew cut. He passes the bottle. "You said your dad was military?"

"Navy." I swig the tequila.

"I flew jets, you know."

"I know."

He takes a long drag. "And what happened to him?"

"The USS Mullinix. Took counterbattery while retaking Quang Tri. My dad was a chief petty officer. I never met him." This is the story I believed most of my life, and I'm still comfortable telling it. "Travis Corresi was one of five men lost."

"Goddamn," Coach says wistfully, upturning the bottle.

Only five months ago, dying of pancreatic cancer, my grandmother told me that Travis Corresi never served on the USS Mullinix. He was just a merchant seaman stationed in Port Arthur for one week in 1973, when my mother was fifteen. They went out only once.

Coach taps ash into the fire. His eyes glisten from a web of wrinkles, and I can imagine an event for each line drawn: flying in Vietnam, coaching the Port Arthur Toreadors for fifteen years, losing a wife named Marguerite to encephalitis, losing his only child to the state of California. The skin around his eyes is a catalogue of gouged disappointments. He takes Vicodin every couple of hours. I think things would be better for him if he had a son.

We get around to discussing the day I broke my jaw.

"I remember that," he says. "That was you?" He grins. "Boy, Dempsey laid you out, huh?"

I steer the conversation to Amanda. We start drinking faster.

His cigarette trembles in his mouth. "You know, she had real joy in her. Maggie used to say"—he takes a long drag and exhales—"that's a happy kid."

I nod. "She was always in a good mood."

"Well." His face puckers. "But she did have a temper. She did have to have things just so." Coach makes a mincing motion with his fingers. Our fire is smoldering ash, red glow dying. We're silent until he tosses his smoke and speaks with grim, exhaling effort. "No court would convict us."

"Nope." I remember saying the same thing two nights ago, during the conversation that started all this. We were both drinking alone at Petro Bowl, and I saw a tall boy in a letterman jacket leave a group of teenagers to approach Coach at the end of the bar. These snickering kids watched their friend ask Coach a question. Coach grabbed his throat and threw the boy over a table. I pulled Coach off, and he bucked in my arms until I said into his ear, "Coach. Coach. I loved her too." We ended up getting a bottle and sitting in his truck, remembering her loudly.

Coach's head lowers. His hands fall in his lap and he sighs. "When did you say you went out?"

"We didn't. We were just friends."

He nods and hoists himself up by holding on to a tire. He opens the tailgate and climbs in; metal squeaks, junk rattles. He calls out, "Hey—is it kidnapping if you don't ask for a ransom?"

"Yes."

More rattling, and then the steady rasp of his snores. I stir embers with a stick. I want to believe we're doing the right thing—that the girl out west is the same one I knew in high school, and all she really needs is to be reminded of who she is. Rilke said to "raise the submerged sensations of that ample past," but later I'll understand that's slippery advice, because memory can be interpretive. Later I'll realize that the synaptic fields where it lives are the same spaces where longing and desire exist, and sometimes memory is only a vehicle for those things.

But even now, beside the cooling ash of our campfire, I don't trust my motivations. That's one of my basic traits, and it's mostly rooted in a broken jaw—the small metal cross in my chin reminding me that what I want and what I'm entitled to are traditionally separate things. To understand what I mean, you have to imagine me at fourteen: five foot eight, a hundred and thirty pounds, in oversized shoulder pads and a helmet I can remove without unsnapping it.

April sun smothers the field. Cheerleaders sit in the bleachers, evaluating the world and hiding cigarettes. I chew my mouthpiece compulsively. I've been reading about Nick Adams and going to war and getting shot. I meet derisive stares, knowing I have my ethos, imagining theories about pain and honor. When we move to open-field tackling, I'm first to volunteer.

Coach Duprene sets me against Eric Dempsey, a six-foot-something senior who's an all-district linebacker. This may be cruel. At the time, though, I think, He's taking me seriously. He's giving me a chance.

When the whistle blows, Coach tosses Eric the ball. I don't hesitate. I get my center of gravity low and straighten my spine by sinking my head into my shoulders and looking upward. I don't swerve or go for his knees.

A sudden gust and I actually hear myself break. Red, shocking pain. I roll over on the ground, sun stabbing my eyes, grass in my mouth, warm copper tastes, dirt. Before I black out, I glimpse the girls in the bleachers, little dots of color all in a line.

So, at twenty-one, I imagine life's chief lesson is that you have to limit your longing, or it can fester until it gets your jaw broken. That twitching metal cross stains my expectations with dread. My eyes dart around in the dark. A log, a moon, noise of wind over rock. Coach cutting Zs. Imagined sounds echo in my ears: the clatter of bowling pins falling, artillery booming into a destroyer's foredeck. My jaw sleeps. No rain.

Telephone poles resemble crosses in the sun. A large green sign says welcome to california. Coach's head dips and rises. I think he's taking more Vicodin.

"This is the farthest west I've ever been," I say.

Coach stares silent and bleary at the road. He fiddles with the radio and finds Merle Haggard singing "Mama Tried." The day her mother died, the intercom called Amanda out of history class. The way she gathered up her books, I knew she was expecting this. I watched her leave from the window, wanting to reach through it as she crossed the concrete walkway. Her sadness felt so real to me, so close.

At San Diego we take Highway 15 north. Later we rise into an elevated space of signs: slogans and bold primary colors. Vehicles swarm us. I wonder if my mother made it this far. Her first postcards came from Nevada. There are five postcards altogether, kept in a shoebox on the floor of my closet. Suppose one day near the end of senior year you came home and your mother was gone. Your grandmother explained that your mom would be away for a while. A cryptic note began "Now that you're seventeen," and talked about each person having to "follow their own heart." Phone calls came once a week for the next two months.

I don't look at the postcards anymore. The shoebox stays closed.

Cars pull us and we merge, rising higher on the concrete slope. Below us parking lots are everywhere, as if we were flying over a city of parking lots. The air becomes a radiant gloom, a bleached fog. Enormous buildings vanish into this haze. Something is burning—the odor is that of something stale, decomposing.

Coach's face crinkles. "Smells terrible." His words slur. A Volvo honks as we drift into the wrong lane. In February of my senior year a story was told in the track team's locker room. They said Amanda had gotten wild. She rode back from a basketball game on the team bus, and something crazy happened. Howls and laughter. I dressed in a hurry, trying not to believe this.

The truck squeals onto the shoulder. Coach slams it into park. "We need to figure out where the hell we are." His pupils float in bloody murk. "You—you gotta drive."

I sink into the driver's seat. The engine rumbles and Coach slumps against the window. With my hands on the wheel, I feel new and worthy. This is what we see: Dry concrete reservoirs, asphalt everywhere, heat-warped air. Mexicans. People wearing sunglasses that make them look like insects. Convenience stores and billboards—pictures of bronze, muscled flesh, cleavage. I glance at my slight, pale biceps.

Once I saw Amanda crossing a flooded football field, kicking up water with her bare feet, and I devised a year-long muscle-building program. Self-improvement notes still litter my house: "A fragment of sacred duty saves you from great fear." "All pain is the result of desire." "People are generally as happy as they choose to be." But sometime after Los Angeles, I get rid of those notes. Papers crackle as I crush them, and my footsteps boom on hardwood floors throughout my house.

At a gas station Coach waits in the truck while a Persian helps me with the map. He says the zip code, 91411, is "in the valley." We have to go farther west. Coach pops two Vicodins. Streets and sidewalks radiate heat like a skillet.

American XXXtasy is part of a strip mall in the San Fernando Valley. The sign is a simple red-letter job on smoky glass doors, tinted so you can't see inside. A few cars in the parking lot. Dusk. A hillock rises at the far end of the mall, and on top sits a T.G.I. Friday's. Coach has been staring out the window. He raps his fingernails against the door and rubs the brown bottle of chloroform. He hasn't spoken since I got directions.

"Stay here, why don't you?" I say. "Let me go see what I can find out."

He stumbles out, head down. "I'm going in."

"Look, Coach. Let me talk to them—I'll make up a story. Trust me, I sort of got a plan." I ask him for his driver's license and tell him again to trust me. I leave him leaning against the truck.

The office has lime-green carpeting, stamped down and pocked with cigarette burns. It smells vaguely like rubbing alcohol and Vaseline. A door behind the front desk is closed. Posters decorate the walls: The Goddaughter Part II, Back-Ended to the Future, and one of Mandy LeRock wearing a transparent raincoat and standing under an umbrella—Rainwoman 5: Eye of the Storm. Those aren't her breasts. A receptionist greets me, an older woman with overcooked skin—orange, papery. She wears flared eyeglasses.

"Can I help you?"

Smiling, I show our driver's licenses. "We're both from Port Arthur, Texas. We drove a long, long way."

"What is it you want?"

"Do you see that man out there?" Beyond the window Coach slumps on his tailgate, puffing out wafts of smoke. "His daughter is an actress." I point to the Rainwoman poster. "Her real name is Amanda Duprene. She's from Texas. We're looking for her."

"I'm sorry, we're not allowed to—"

"Ma'am. We don't want to make trouble. But it's—the thing is … he's dying. He's dying and he just wants to see his only daughter before he goes."

She looks past me, out the window. In the parking lot Coach appears folded. His back is bowed and he coughs into his hand, smoke blanketing him and dissolving into dusklight. He really does look sick.

"We're trying to find her. That's all. We're not making trouble for anybody."

For some reason she whispers. "What is it?"

"What?"

"What does he have?"

"Pancreatic cancer."

"Oh, Lord." She puts her hand to her mouth. "Just a minute. Okay? I'll be right back." She takes our licenses and walks to the back room, opening the door only wide enough to step through. A moment later she reappears. "Sir? You can come in." My heart skips, but through the door is just another desk with a thin young man behind it. A bag from McDonald's spills french fries across his desk.

His face is acne-scarred. He scans our licenses. "Are you for real?" he says, sucking his fingertips. The receptionist clasps her hands in the doorway.

I tell the story of Coach's cancer while eyeing stacks of videotapes on the desk, explaining how difficult it was to drive the old man here from Port Arthur. The man chews fries as I talk. At the end he asks me for a contact number and says the most he can do is pass the message along to Amanda. He's sorry, they can't just give out addresses, especially to family.

The woman catches me at the outer door. She passes me a slip of yellow paper. "You don't know where this came from," she says, and pats my arm. On the paper is an address.

Coach nods and falls into his seat. Back on the highway he stares at the chloroform and says, "I don't know. I don't know about this."

It takes us another two hours to find the address.

A ranch-style house in Van Nuys. Pal- metto and ferns, palm trees with ridged skin and no foliage. A yellow Corvette in the driveway. From a bay window pale, lemon-colored light lies in three rectangles on the trim green lawn. Around are similar houses, warm air. We park across the street and turn off the lights.

"So what do you want to do?"

His head, reclined, turns slowly. "Go home."

"C'mon. Do we go to the door? Do we wait to see if she comes out?"

His eyes are lacquered dots, absorbed by wrinkles and folds.

"Coach?"

He closes his eyes. Laborious breaths. "Go see."

"Me?"

"Go see." He brandishes the chloroform in some gesture of reassurance.

The porch light is off, and a dim pink glow emits from the doorbell. I walk toward it, through darkness between windows, the doorbell like the end of a tunnel.

I would watch her green eyes, the smile that always closed them. I remember her face lit by a Bunsen burner's quivering flame, laughter bursting from her like confetti. Once, I saw her slap Junior Wendell's hand away from her skirt, and I felt the confinement of a teenage girl. The way her mind was full of longings—a knot of emotions constantly rising to the surface, washing over her, carrying her through a harrowed suburban field, past the shopping mall and long acres of bluestem grass, into the back seats of cars, truckbeds.

I knock. Again. "Who is it?" comes from behind the heavy wood.

"Amanda Duprene?"

"Who is it?" the voice repeats.

"Um … Robert Corresi? From Port Arthur?" A porch light ignites and brightness blinds me. The movie I own is called The Devil's Garage, and it has the smooth, false texture of something shot on video. The star of the story needs to get her car fixed, but doesn't have enough money. The door opens the length of a chain lock, and a dog's black nose sniffs the gap. A pair of brown eyes, female and bloodshot, glide over me. The door closes, and I hear metal sliding loose.

In the second it takes for the door to swing wide, I become conscious of my looks, until I remember that I don't have acne anymore and my haircut is better than it was in high school. She has dark skin, and her reddish hair is pulled back. She holds a large brown Rottweiler by its collar. Light from inside silhouettes her, making her robe almost translucent blue. Her voice is familiar but rawer, deep. "I know you."

She manifests from the light, becoming solid, as if stepping from the place where I keep her in my mind. Her eyebrows are plucked into precise waves; her cheeks and chest shine with lotion. She stares, eyes fractured with red, and tilts her head. "I know you."

"Robert. From high school? We were lab partners?"

The dog whines, and she crouches to scratch its ears. "Hush, Pete." She looks up. "Bobby? Bobby Corresi?"

"Robert. Nobody calls me Bobby anymore."

"What are you doing here?"

"I wanted to see you. We've been driving."

She glances over my shoulder. "Who's we?"

"Me and your father. Your dad's here. We drove to see you—"

"What?" Amanda moves past me, and I see Coach standing in the dark behind his truck, only bare hints of him visible. She points furiously in his direction. "What did you bring him here for? What do you want? Get him out of here!"

Before I can reply, a man steps onto the porch. He is about my height, but with hard muscles and toasted skin. He wears a white tank top, jogging pants, and lots of earrings. His short, glossy hair stands up straight. He puts an arm around Amanda's waist and stares at me. "What's going on, babe?"

She barely regards him. "Nothing." Back to me, she asks, "What did you bring him here for?" She yells over my shoulder. "Stay over there! You don't come near this house!" Her dog keeps hopping up, lunging and choking himself on his own collar, barking at the frenzy in her voice. The man next to her shifts his eyes from me to Coach and back again. Through all this I notice with somber clarity how sweet she smells.

She looks at me, accusing. "What?"

"Amanda. Can I talk to you? Please—just for a second. We really drove a long way. I just want to talk."

Her eyes narrow suspiciously, and her dog sniffs my crotch.

"Please."

She huffs loud. "Hold on." And she shuts the door and leaves me standing in a cone of light on her porch. Murmurs come from inside the house. Coach's cigarette smoke plumes up on the far side of his truck like a phantom tulip.

When the door opens again, Amanda points over my shoulder. "He can't come in. He stays outside." The man beside her walks out the doorway and bumps hard into my shoulder, passing. "Tony's going to wait out here too." He positions himself behind me with his arms crossed.

She and the dog step to one side, and I move into a foyer with a dried-flower arrangement standing on a nice marble table, and then into diffused light and the scent of incense, jasmine maybe, a television's flickering blue in a living room of brown, thick-cushioned furniture. Maroon walls, pictures of landscapes, some odor lingering from the kitchen. Amanda mutes the TV.

She motions me to the couch and curls her legs beneath her, covering them with the robe. Pete the dog lies on a cushion between us. I feel my chest tightening. Her lips look bee-stung, and I suppose it's collagen or something. Her breasts are too round and firm under the robe. Her eyes are brown.

"Okay," she says. "I'll give you five minutes."

"We just—I mean, I came here to help you, I guess. We want to bring you home."

She rolls her eyes and laughs. "Right. Whatever. Perfect."

"Look—"

"You look. What do you think—are you judging me? You bring my dad out here, and, and what—" she rubs her nose and talks fast. Even though it's cool in here, beads of sweat have broken across her brow. "I mean, what do you know? We're, like, lab partners freshman year? So you know me or something?" She has heavy gray rings under her eyes. I can't get over her eyes.

"Do you wear contacts now?"

"No." The question confuses her. "Look." She makes an encompassing gesture over the room. "Do I look like I need help?" She scratches the dog. "I mean, I haven't done drugs in almost a year." She stares at her toenails, painted purple. On her ankle is a cuneiform tattoo. "I haven't made a movie in four months. I mean, I don't think I'm even going to again. Probably. I've got offers for, like, TV and stuff." She tugs her hair and brushes something off a sofa cushion. I remember the hair-tugging. She always did do that. There's so little I recognize here.

"But you're not happy. You're better than this—"

She throws up her hands. "See? This is what I'm talking about. You come out here and what, because you don't like the way I live my life?"

"Come on—"

"No. You come on. Really, Bobby. I have news for you. The world's a lot bigger than Port Arthur, Texas. Okay? A lot bigger. How I make my living isn't your business, and it sure as hell isn't that asshole out there's."

"Tony?"

She frowns sarcastically. "My dad." She rubs her nose. "But it's my life. Mine. You need to worry about your life, right? Do I tell you how to live your life? What do you do, anyway?"

I hesitate a moment. "I work for Lone Star Environmental. I monitor groundwater."

She claps. "Wow. Super. Never left town, right? Never went to college, right?"

"I don't know, not yet, but—"

She puts her head in one hand and laughs. "I cannot believe you actually came all the way out here. I cannot believe you brought my father here." She stares hard at me. "You've got a lot of nerve."

I look at the pictures on her walls, paintings of peaceful vistas and lonesome shorelines, and all I can think of is to try and convince her of what I still know. "I saw you once. It was sophomore year. Early sophomore year. I guess you didn't have eighth hour back then, but it had just rained, and I was waiting for the bell to ring, you know? Bored, the sky that weird gray, sunshine but no blue, and I just wanted to go home."

She picks at her thumbnail.

I keep my eyes on the landscapes while I talk. "And I looked out the window, and I saw you. You were walking across the football field in your uniform, and you'd taken your shoes off—and you were taking your time, kicking up water with your toes. I could see little splashes of it. You would spin around now and then. You were looking up at the sky, and in the glass I'd lose you in the sun. You know, where the sun flared up in the glass? And you'd step out of the light, kicking water, in your skirt, looking really distracted. And it wasn't that you were beautiful—you were, but it wasn't that." All my stored years coagulate into language, and I believe she can yet be reclaimed. "I remember thinking that I knew what was distracting you. You know? Even though I couldn't name it, or put words to it, I had this sense, this real calm feeling, and I used to be pretty nervous, I guess, but a feeling—like the world was a good place, because I could see it with your eyes."

The dog seeks my leg and whines a faint, choked sob. A newscaster tells a silent story on TV.

She closes her robe some and touches my cheek. "Bobby. Look, you're a sweetheart. I mean it." She wipes her eyes with a tiny laugh that almost echoes the one I remember. "I'm sure I was just high, though. I was taking a lot of acid back then."

Her fingers trace my jawline, stopping under my chin. "You're sweet. But you need to take care of your life."

Because there's nowhere to look but at her, I close my eyes.

This is where all my stories converge. Every lost moment between experience and memory meets at a crossroads: at the metal X in my jaw, where her fingers sit like a shotgun barrel.

"Can I have five more minutes?"

"No."

Someone shouts, and I open my eyes.

We move outside, where the noise came from. In the near distance, just beyond the porch light, Coach sits on the lawn, holding his face. Tony looms over him, fists clenched.

Tony sticks out his jaw. "He said he was going inside. I told him no."

It's hard not to pity Coach, crumbled on the lawn that way, struggling with a palm over his eye, but I manage. I walk over, and Tony steps in front of me. "You want some?"

"Tony," Amanda calls behind me. "Come on. It's all right. Come inside."

Coach sprawls at my feet, holding the chloroform out like some impotent offering. The front door shuts.

I tell Coach to get in the truck.

In the driver's seat, I toss the chloroform out the window. He slumps against his door with a bruise swelling over his left eye. "This really worked out great," he snaps.

I study him, tracing the lines on his face with my eyes, and keep staring after he meets my look. He stares at the window, and I watch him for a few moments before turning the key.

The engine turns over, stuttering, and we move forward.

A second search will occur. In Port Arthur I see an advertisement for Reunions, Inc. Because there is still one question to answer, one piece of unknowing I will not abide, I call them. For two months following I continue to work for Lone Star Environmental, letting the vacuous fields and long, empty skies pass by like frames of overexposed film, telling no stories, taking soil samples and testing air with my nose for signs of contamination. Only occasionally during this period do I reflect on Coach Duprene.

We made the drive back in silence. I drove, and Coach kept his face to the window. Red-clay mesas and purple skylines. Half-conceived mountains in distant mist. His guilt as certain as the road beneath our wheels.

I will not see him again.

Reunions, Inc., returns the report that cost me $300. The envelope sits on my kitchen table for an entire day. The company's logo seems to be trying to stare me down. After five beers I open the envelope and remove two sheets of paper. This is what they say:

Travis Corresi is a missing person. His last known whereabouts was as second mate on the SS Mary Charles, a trading ship that went down in the Yellow Sea in 1989. But I'd always known that. All my life my father had died at sea.

Tearing down every bit of philosophy, every maxim in the house, I crush the notes, making a single bundle, and decide that everything that has gone before is one story, the same long one, and if it doesn't end, then the next decade may be like the last one, a period of anxious stillness that sees you crouched, nervous, like a mouse in a corner, leaves you mourning a life you never really had.

That life is fragmented into scenes you barely recall, their significance due only to their lack of competition, until this life, these moments, become like a pair of green eyes you're convinced you once saw, blinking at you in the sky of a long, wandering night, when you wondered what you were doing driving this late, and how you'd make it home. Years you can't remember, because you were too busy disguising true sadness as trumped-up nostalgia.

So the house is up for sale. Last night you decided not to pack anything, and spent time staring at the long, fenced prairie across the street.

Now you might picture your next story, your second one, but don't be too definite, don't make a vision you might cling to, or create an idea you lose yourself in. Don't look at a map and ponder the depth of the Yellow Sea; don't imagine the shapes of its waves. Don't contemplate lost parents or lost girls. Resist the urge to explain their stories, because eventually you've got to understand that an answer isn't the same thing as a solution, and a story is sometimes only an excuse.

If you have to, let yourself imagine the mood of this story, the places it might happen, what the weather will be like. Tell yourself it will be a world, at least, where you're less abandoned, and sustained by more than illusion. If you have to.

Just leave before you change your mind.

Nicolas Pizzolatto is a Walton fellow at the University of Arkansas, where he is completing a novel and a collection of stories. His story "Ghost-Birds" appeared in the October 2003 Atlantic.
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