Bewildering Stories

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Made It Way Up

Part 23: Essa and Kelly

by Ian Donnell Arbuckle

Part 22 appears in this issue.


I’m so proud to be an American. Here freedom starts the stampede for everything, a huge expanding field of hearts and hair pushing outward but never dissipating. If you’re at the center, if you’re sheltered, there is nothing left unconsumed. The stars, if they could see us, would think us just another ambitious nebula. But we are far too small, and far too dim, and much too far away.

I can’t even get a good jab in on Bernie. He’s done all the work for me. You’d think he would grow out of himself, with everything that has happened.

I just can’t help thinking that some night in the city, he’ll come stumbling into my living room. He’ll be drunk and smell of it. Perch and the gang will be over, and we’ll be arguing everything in that bright blood buzz that settles on you when you want never to stop talking. And Bernie won’t recognize the dissonance in the air. He won’t recognize goodbye, or laughter, or, You fucking killed your own best friend.

I just know it’s going to happen and, short of lighting a fire under his bed, there’s not much I can do about it.

That’s all I was thinking as I started packing up, making little figures out of spoons and Blistex, and acting out the grand tragedy. Oops, little Bernie got his head twisted off, and now there’s this clearish paste bulging from his neck. Don’t grow out of things like this.

I put the Blistex in my pocket. I had a few small piles made on the kitchen table before I remembered all our moving boxes were folded up and stuffed in the crawlspace. Cardboard works well as insulation, and saves money for oxygen which, when ignited, keeps you pretty warm too.

I had forgotten how hot it was above the ceiling. Even during the snowless winter that we moved here, it was toasty up under the rafters. There hung all our conversations, all our sweat and my little panting breaths, all of it caught and held from heaven. Much longer here and the house would lift off like a hot air balloon.

I fussed about up there, careful not to step on the yellow clouds of insulation for fear of the million invisible splinters I would gain. I wiped my forehead with both wrists, alternating to keep the level of grime consistent. When I slithered down the ladder, I could feel drops of brown sweat clinging to my cheeks and the plain summer air hit me like a whisky buzz. My shirt was filthy. I took it off and went out on the porch.

It felt light to be naked outside. I let a breeze hit my belly without shriveling my skin. The tiny hairs tagging my ribcage went from invisible to gold dust.


I looked up poem in the dictionary.


I was watching my hands leave trails of goosebumps and trying to decide if my hands were warmer than my skin or was it the other way around. When I looked up, Kelly was staring at me from her bedroom window. I waved. She stuck her tongue out at me.


It’s not that simple. It takes so many nanoseconds from the thought to the motion. Too many and dad will laugh and say, Time’s up. Too few and you’re blurting out the first thing that comes to mind.


Cape. Boston.


She waved at me without thinking about it. She had big nipples. There is a picture of me in my baby book of mom curled up in bed, reading a stack of papers. Dad’s next to her, reading something he forgot. I’m in her lap, with my fists bunched up and into her skin, sucking at her milk. She is laughing. Dad is trying to ignore the man behind the camera.

I was getting grease on the window from my nose and my eyes. I licked it off.


I sat down in my rocking chair, clutching at my breasts. The damn blubber globes weren’t doing what they were designed to do: keep me warm.

I can stay with Anyone for a while, I thought. Just long enough to get a place of my own.

Kelly was still staring at me. It was starting to creep me out, same as mannequins and life sized cardboard cutouts do. When I looked away, there was still this half-pint presence putting weight on my senses. It felt as though she was coming closer, ghostly through the yard to me. I snapped my head up to fix her back in place.


Her legs were in the sun. A shadow for the rest. I heard a scream; it was dad’s purple toe scream. She moved her black arm to her eyes, which was stupid. She turned back when dad didn’t say anything more.

Then there was this sound like a giant eggbeater. Essa used her other arm. I stared so hard she disappeared and I made her put her arm down.

Then she fought and put up her hand with the wrong L shape. Supposed to use your pointer finger and your thumb. She was just pointing up.


It’s every day you see a thing like this. I wanted to go home so badly, to find a little normalcy. The piercings and brandings, the late night brandy war rooms, the rain. I would miss being able to walk outside naked, but, hell, I wouldn’t really.

I felt caught between two pincers in a way I had never felt caught when Lane was around. Kelly with her demanding need to be, if not a woman, then a man. Bernard with a similar sort of thing. Sometimes I think, I ought to leave a lot of this for him to read when I am gone. You have to do some things so that you can move on. You can’t just selectively ignore the opportunities to fail; you have to fall into them with the full, misguided intent to succeed and then eat your pie alone. And then go home.

I had never thought of Lane as my protector, before. Now he wasn’t.

Kelly’s head was still Mona Lisa fixed on me. I couldn’t tell if her eyes were open or not.

I realized I had been listening to the low metallic purr of a car for quite some time. And now it was overshadowed by the penetrating chink of pebbles on fenders as an old green and white sedan turned into the mouth of our shared driveway. It was the sheriff. I pushed myself up with the railing and went inside before the man behind the wheel got a good eyeful.

It took me ten minutes to find the packing tape I had set out in the open. By that time, someone was pounding on my door.


I went outside to take a walk. A man who didn’t fit the landscape kept saying, Little girl, little girl, but I didn’t listen to him. I went barefoot to the green. Even in the middle of the hottest day in the world, the grass is still soft and cool; it was thick and shaded and there was dew trapped in the roots.

A little girl said, We can pay for you to go to school.

A little girl said, You may wear whatever you like. You may wear nothing.

A little boy said, This car is for me and no other. This car is for me and no other. This car is mine.

I said, This car doesn’t need to hear its name so often and fine you can have it it smells of you anyway.

It’s hard to remember a dream, completely. I would try to write it down, but it went hazy and — now I know — poetic, and I knew that while I write along straight lines, it wanted to be told round a globe or something worse.

We were driving to somewhere from right here. There were red walls. The red walls may have been where we were going. On a train to reach an arm stretch out. Daddy was invisible. Black invisible, like Essa. Coal. He drove from the back. I’m tired of writing in straight lines. The letters look so tired. Just like that guy in the big black hat I saw so many times on TV. He had a strap around his chin that wouldn’t keep his hat on but he didn’t seem to mind. He was slouching, and a guy with a big grin kept saying, The great British empire, over and over again.

I needed dirt to my ankles, dirt in my fingers. Roots snapped like strands of hair as I dug and twirled. I got paper cuts from green blades. Dandelions bled their white insides. I closed my eyes, not to sleep. The sun burned orange in the corner of my eyes. I turned my head away. Dancing blue faced molecules with eyebrows floating over their heads. Take off the eyebrows and they can’t look angry. Scribbling over them makes it worse.

Every piece of me was moving angry.

To be concluded...

Copyright © 2004 by Ian Donnell Arbuckle

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