Like Dust and Dead Skin
by Danny Pelletier
Because I slam the truck door and peel away without parking anywhere in the lot, Heather looks back at the neon VACANCY sign and says she thought we were getting a room."The NO isn't working," I lie. "It's blown."
My headlights glare against the snow, big hefty flakes that float down slowly like confetti but melt as soon as they touch the ground. Heather points out some deer by the side of the road, and I nod as if I've already seen them.
"Why don't they just turn off the sign?" she asks, but I tell her I don't know. If she doesn't believe me, she doesn't show it. Money is no concern to her; she wouldn't possibly believe I can't afford seventy-five dollars. I have a crisp twenty from the ATM, some faded ones and a five with a mustache drawn on Lincoln's face. I try to do the math: my drinks, they were five-fifty each; hers, eight? She refused well drinks. The cheap stuff— it's not the same, she said.
The truck's lighter pops out and Heather presses it to a cigarette.
"We can't go back to your place?" she asks.
"Why doesn't she ever go out with her friends?"
I don't want to tell her that my daughter doesn't have any friends, that she's an embarrassment to me sometimes, that she's home babysitting her brothers so I can be out here screwing around, with her mother's sister no less, so I just tell her that I don't know. She replies with the worst thing she could say:
"Better that she's not doing what we're doing, anyway."
I can't imagine Margaux doing what we're doing. She won't even wear clothes that are slightly revealing, her breasts always covered, fully, her legs ignorant of shorts. She's the type of girl that wears pajamas on the hottest nights and brings her clothes to the bathroom so she doesn't have to walk to her room in a towel. She wears dress clothes to school, like she's going to church or something. She's the complete opposite of Heather.
Heather sinks down into the seat with her knees up against the dash. Part of her skirt falls back, revealing a flash of her thighs. She offers me a cigarette, and though Sarah made me quit when Margaux was born, it all comes back to me naturally: the raw throat, the dry, stinging eyes, the burning in my chest. It doesn't help my heartburn, but it gives me something to do with my hands. I crack my window open to tap the ashes out and cold air rushes in.
"Is your mom home?"
"Would it matter?" she asks. "Would you really want to go there?"
I tell her no.
"She's home, anyway. Georgia and Al are over and they're making martinis. It's Martini Movie Night."
"Well, let's give them— " I look at my watch for effect— "ten minutes or so and they won't even notice a thing."
"Very funny," she says. "I'm a screamer." She sucks on her cigarette like it's a joint, wraps one arm around her waist, and stares out the window. I can't help looking at her. She's so much like her sister, but so different. Her hair is darker, for one—a chestnut color compared to Sarah's dying-maple-leaf red—and always it looks slept on, a wild bird's nest. Her face is serious but soft, like an older woman who looks young for her age, though Heather is young, very young: twenty-two to my thirty-one.
I drive for a while and, without thinking too much about it, turn right onto Lake Street, in the direction of the West End. It's closed after dark, but the marina is bayside, so nobody will see us by the lake.
"Where we going?" Heather asks.
The West End of the beach is rocky without much sand, bleak, and unlike the East End it has no bathrooms, concession stands, or tall lifeguard chairs, just brush, rocks, and dead fish. It doesn't draw any tourists in the summer. Sometimes fishermen come to cast off from the pier, or swimmers who can't afford to use the public side will wade out into the seaweed, but all that's frowned upon. Kids come here to drink around small driftwood fires, roast marshmallows and make out, but they're not here tonight.
I remember those nights in my life— the cramped, sweaty parties— and sometimes I miss them, miss the thrill and the laughter, the camaraderie, miss that night here, at the beach, when Sarah flashed everyone the yellow bikini bottom she was wearing under her skirt, miss the salty taste of her skin when we first kissed. I miss the way she looked, coiled on the blanket in front of the fire. I miss my life. I can feel it all around me, in this town, on this beach, in the bars and at Margaux's school. It's still there. I've shed it like dead skin, but it's still there, like dust, covering everything. Heather, home for the weekend— she stirs the dust. She is the only connection I have to my past, to my wife, to Sarah. I remember when she was a child, when we were all three of us children, and she had such a crush on me.
I spread out a blanket on the rocks and twist open a bottle of Bud, which fizzes and spills over like a science fair volcano. I feel silly because the blanket, which I keep in my truck for emergencies, has this stupid picture of a grizzly bear on it. It smells musty. I should wash it tomorrow at work. Margaux usually does the laundry, but sometimes I bring mine to the nursing home with me; she can be snoopy.
Heather lowers herself onto the blanket. Though she's more aggressive than Sarah, her movements are more careful, less impulsive. She moves passionately, with slow determination. She knows where she's going and she'll get there—in time. The way she sits with her legs tucked under her, though, reminds me of Sarah. Sarah, sweating in front of the fire, Heather, her cheeks burned by the cold, clinks her bottle against mine, scratches one leg with the big toe on her other foot, shifts so her legs are against her chest, and stares out over the water.
Like a poet, she is, Sarah, speaking in few words, direct, why you're in love with her, remember? One time, speaking of her sister, Sarah said to me, She's like a woman in a French Impressionist painting: a little vague, melancholy, something to admire—but not touch. Was she jealous? Is she jealous of her sister? Is that why she left?
The shots I had back at the bar start to catch up with me, because while I'm looking out over the lake it feels as if I'm watching an old black and white silent film, the snow just the dust and scratches that accumulate on the reel. Everything moves at a different speed, like old Super8 home movies-so distant, unreal. But when I turn to look at Heather, her hair blue in the dim, gray light, she is now very real to me. The way she moves is deliberate. Purposeful. She is here, next to me. Her body screams youth. She is young, brilliant.
"How's school?" I ask. She rolls her eyes.
"Fine. Almost over, Thank God."
Don't mention Sarah, I tell myself, but all the while I'm thinking about the first night I had with her, with Sarah, when we were teenagers, a night not at all like tonight, not romantic at all. There had been a loss in the family (her grandfather).We did it in the upstairs hallway so we could hear if anyone came home and with our clothes on so we could dress fast enough if they did and not get caught. It was tense. She still had tears in her eyes, had been crying before she started kissing me. And it was one of those summer nights that feel like a greenhouse, itchy and hot; her thighs were sticky with sweat. Eyes, hair, cheeks, neck, palms—all wet. She smelled like moss. She was beautiful.
This is life, I remember telling myself. This sweaty, dirty teenage sex—this is life. Life is a series of collisions, of coming together.
(Sarah's grandfather died alone in a nursing home. She barely visited him. Years later, though, when she said our marriage was falling apart, she accused me of being heartless because of that night. But there is a dent where her elbow hit the wall when she came. She grabbed her arm in pain and laughed with me—I keep telling her this. She doesn't pay attention to the way things really happen. She can't look back at the past, at the dust, and piece it all back together like most people can.)
I ask Heather what she's going to do when she graduates. She says she doesn't know.
"Probably live at home for a while," she says.
"What about grad school?"
"I don't know." Cigarette in one hand, beer bottle in the other, she has to jerk her head to get the hair out of her eyes. I brush it away for her, tangling my fingers into her hair, and the way she looks over at me, turning her eyes like she's just noticed me, makes my nerves flare, like when you hear something crash in your house in the middle of the night. She's anxious, uneasy. Her eyes avoid mine.
I ask what she can do with a sociology degree. She's wearing a sleeveless top and her jacket, too big for her, droops down off of her shoulders as she shrugs.
"I don't know. Social work."
"Does that pay well?"
"What are you, my mom? Fuck. I mean, seriously—" she fixes her jacket with another shrug—"I really don't want to talk about this right now. Not with you." She reminds me so much of Sarah. Probably she will hold this all against me later when she changes her mind about what she wants. She pulls one end of the blanket up over her shoulders, lights another cigarette in the cup of her hand. She's shivering.
"It's such a waste of my time," she spits out around her cigarette, pocketing her Bic. "How am I going to pay for it all? I'm just digging my grave deeper. I'm going to die in this stupid shit town." She drinks deeply from the bottle, letting some of the beer flow down her chin to her neck. With the back of her sleeve, she dries off her face, but her shirt is wet and clings to her chest. She must be cold, out here in a skirt. But she's tough; she endures.
"It'll pay off," I tell her. I toss a small stone, which bounces and ricochets down to the shoreline. "Look at me. I didn't go to school, and I'm doing lousy. I wish I had done things differently."
"You mean you wish you never fucked Sarah, or if you did you'd at least wear a condom this time around."
"I didn't say that."
"You talk to her lately? Do you act like you're her boss too?"
Despite the chill blowing in off the lake, I begin to feel really hot inside my clothes. I have a headache, too, like my heart is in my brain.
"That's not why she left. She left because she wanted to. It had nothing to do with me." I say this like I believe it.
She rolls her eyes again, turns her head away from me, and mumbles, "She doesn't know what she wants."
"What's the difference between her going to college, and you?" I ask.
"I don't have three children at home alone," she snaps. This is an attack against me; I shouldn't be out here with her.
"Do you think I'm forcing you to be here? Because we can just leave if that's what you want."
"Would you marry me?" she adds after a moment. Again, she avoids my eyes, staring down at the bear on the blanket.
"If I got pregnant. Would you marry me?"
I force an indecipherable breath out of myself. "Jesus. Is that what you're worried about? That I'll get you pregnant?"
"I'm not worried," she says, looking right at me. "I'm lonely. Like you."
A darkness comes over me. I turn away this time, take a mouthful of beer, letting it sit inside my mouth. It's dry, bitter, and it gives me a taste to associate with my feelings. The snow begins to swirl. Violent waves crash against the pier and lurch up to the shore. I'm buzzed. Looking out over the lake now is like the silent film is skipping, continually pulling one way then snapping back the other, with half of the frame falling off the screen.
I chuck the bottle into the lake and pull Heather to her feet, stumbling because my leg is asleep from sitting on the rocks.
"Let's go out on the pier," I tell her.
The whole thing becomes sickeningly romantic. Heather's hair floats on the wind, whipping about her face like in the movies. I brush her hair away from her lips, and I focus on how they move when we talk. We have to raise our voices over the waves.
"Have you heard from Sarah lately?" she asks. This is an apology; she wants me to answer this time.
I shake my head. "She doesn't write anymore. And she stopped calling months ago."
She seems annoyed by my answer— her lips turn down slightly, like she's just sipped coffee that's too bland— and tries to light another cigarette, but it's too windy.
I ask, "Why are you out here with me and not with your college friends, having fun?" At the end of the pier, under the steady red light from the warning lamp, her lips are a deep pink. I rub my thumb over them. Her face is soft and smooth, but chilled like cold fruit.
"They're not my friends. It's like being in high school again. All the drama. The games. Nobody cares about learning anything or doing anything other than drinking and getting laid. It's stupid. Most of them are getting a free ride from their parents. They don't appreciate the money it takes to be there, the hard work, the dedication."
"Did you have sex with any of them?" I put one hand on her hip, slipping my fingers under her shirt.
"Yes. But I don't care about them. Not anymore."
My fingers stop. I'm torn between my jealousy and my fatherly instinct to scold, to tell her to be careful, to tell her that she's too young. To avoid boys like me. Like I was. Like I am.
I ask, "Am I just another one of them?" I turn away from her and sing to the lake. I sing about walls, about being just another brick, another brick. Sarah and me out on the pier, late at night, drunk, high, singing about how we don't need an education, believing this, rebellious. Heather says, "It's cold. I want to go home."
Halfway through the pack, I start to feel the effects of the nicotine. I can't tell the difference between the smoke inside the truck and the snow outside, or the fog. I can't tell if it's raining. I turn on the windshield wipers. There is a young girl, fifteen or so, Margaux's age, walking along the side of the road, toward us. She's staring up at the sky with a smirk, like she's trying to suppress a laugh, and she's touching her face as if she's just been touched by her lover and she's trying to recreate the moment. We pass by her so quickly, but I can't get her out of my head. It's late. Where was she coming from? Why was she so happy? Why aren't I? Why isn't Sarah here with me? Why am I here with her sister? Like the girl touching herself, I can't recreate one touch with another. It's impossible. And Heather— she's staring out her window innocently. She didn't even notice the girl as we passed her. Why is she here with me? Why is she doing this? Why would she want to ruin her sister's marriage?
"I don't think I can do this," I say.
Heather looks at me and says, "I'm okay. I can drive."
"No! Not that. I can't do this. This. I can't marry you. Like you said, I don't even know you."
"I'm your sister-in-law. I'm already family."
"Only because my wife won't give me a divorce."
"Do you still love her?"
"No." I say it too quickly.
"Have you asked her for a divorce?"
I don't answer.
She looks down at her hands, a cigarette, dangerously close to her naked thigh, stuck in the V of two fingers. "Do you love me?"
I sigh. "I don't know. I can't afford to love you." I play the part of the tortured hero, the single father who holds his family together somehow but is coming apart deep down inside. I can't afford to date. I can't even afford a shitty motel room. How tragic. How pathetic. I can barely afford rent. I can barely afford to feed my own children.
"What's that supposed to mean?" she asks.
I keep going: "I can't afford to be with you or to get married again. I can't afford to take care of you."
"Take care of me? Is that how it is? I'm just another child to you? Another expense?"
"No. I didn't mean it like that."
"You think I'm just looking for a free ride?"
"I didn't say that."
"Because I thought I proved to everyone that I wasn't a child when I told Mom I didn't want her fucking money. You know how I feel about money. I'm me. I'm Heather Vine. I'm not my mother, I'm not my father, and I'm not their money."
"I've made a lot of mistakes in my life," I say.
"Yeah, three of them: a girl and two boys. Fucking men."
"You're a selfish prick. No wonder Sarah left you."
We pass by Margaux's high school— our old school— and I'm tempted to pull over. Sarah, schoolgirl, glasses, textbooks she won't leave in her locker for study hall the next day, a dictionary with her always, calculator— is she really a rebel? Does she really believe her own complaints about this institution? do any of us? do I? She snickers at my paperback collections of poetry, the way I don't slouch in Mr. Cooke's English class. I remember what my father told me: If the head doesn't think, the back suffers. Not just the back, it's the body. My legs ache. My feet. My hands are chapped from handling wet laundry. And my eyes. I just want to cry sometimes. Why would Sarah leave me? We were in this together, she and I. And now I'm all alone. I want to hurt her the way she hurt me, to show her that I don't need her. But I do.
"She's the selfish one," I snap. "She's the one who left. What am I going to do? I can't leave. No; I'm stuck here taking care of her children by myself. I'm stuck with responsibilities. You ever heard about that? Bills? I swear, you two are cut from the same stone: spoiled fucking brats, both of you."
The way Heather looks at me then, unable to speak, like I've just taken a bite of a hamburger infested with maggots, makes me want to jerk the truck into a ditch, or over a cliff.
Instead, I steer us toward the apartment on Rose Avenue where Sarah and I started our lives together. I'm sentimental. With the death of another year looming, you get nostalgic. I pull up onto the curb and yank the truck into park. It's a big, brick house with a turret. Sarah and I shared a one bedroom apartment on the second floor that had a kitchenette where the closet used to be and big floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the street. We used to make love in front of those windows, late at night, with a summer breeze making the curtains dance.
Heather doesn't ask questions, or even look at me. She's just a child; she doesn't understand. Her antipathy for her sister: it's all just an act. I'm the bad guy and I always will be. She'll probably never talk to me again. Given the same choices, she'd leave too. And as it starts to rain proper, she opens the door, slamming it behind her, and does. Miles from her mom's house, she walks away. Just like that.
Life is like that. Life is sacrifice. Life is death. Life is a series of endings, of fallings, of walking away and decay.
Sarah, plump belly, takes Margaux, bundled up in a coat, a scarf, and a crocheted hat, to the library so I can sleep during the day— I can see this through the slats in the window blinds— she silently walking away from me, down the sidewalk, her back to me, Margaux's mittened hand in hers, her belly plump; I can see this, but I can't see how she keeps her face turned to the wind so her eyes will just look watery because of the cold and that she frets and fumbles about the house at night while I work, cleaning our apartment with rags, trying to keep up with the dust that's constantly falling all around her, feeling helpless and heavy with child— this pregnant woman, nineteen years old, this beautiful pregnant woman, holding a picture book in one hand, trying not to slip on the ice as she guides her four-year-old daughter, alone, down a slight incline on a stale, salty winter day.
I'm drunk, maybe a little, yes, but that's not why I peek into Margaux's room when I get home. I just want to be close to my daughter; she'll hardly let me near when she wakes. I've done this before, snuck into her room while she was sleeping, just to look at her, but her door was always snugly closed in its frame. Tonight it is ajar.
Tonight, too, her clothes are on the floor, a scattering of t-shirt, jeans, panties, bra when she's normally so neat, will normally scold me, her father, if there is a stray sock on my floor.
As I'm putting her clothes into the hamper, I find a piece of paper crinkled in her pocket. I unfold it and squint, seeing a check written to me, from Sarah. Child support. On the back: my signature, almost perfect. I think about what I told Heather at the beach. She doesn't write anymore. And she stopped calling months ago. Have there been letters? Has Margaux been stealing my mail? I look at Margaux, really look at her, for the first time.
Even in the summer, when the weather is oppressively humid, Margaux will sleep with her sheets covering her, her pajamas on. I tease her, she sweats so much. But tonight, her naked arm lies on top of her comforter, her child's breast exposed. The silver chain that she never wears to bed is still around her neck, her stud earrings in place. This is not how I want to see my daughter, so I cover my eyes, and I leave. But the image is there. I can't unsee it. She is the spitting image of Sarah at that age.
In the morning, she finds me upstairs, in the dining room, staring into the black abyss of my coffee as if someone just came up to me and said, "That's Hell."
"Where were you last night?" she asks. Though she'd normally be upset at me for being out all night, today Margaux's radiant, like a flower turning to the sun.
Where were you? I wonder. What were you doing last night? But already I know. She's wearing her pajamas, but they're not wrinkled: she's just put them on. She reminds me, now, so much of her mother. Sarah— still a child, I know now, too young to be a mother— naked under her covers, flashes a nipple at me and smiles playfully. I can't get my daughter's breast out of my mind, the soft bubblegum pink of her nipple. Who was she with last night? She's too young to be a mother. I'd be a hypocrite if I told her this. Or would I be the voice of reason? The voice Sarah and I didn't have when we were her age?
Run, Margaux. Turn and run from this life. You are worth so much more than this misery. If he loved you, he wouldn't do this to you. He wouldn't abuse your body, he wouldn't cheat on you, and he wouldn't push you a whole continent away when all you wanted was a little space, a little time for yourself.
She turns to walk away from me, down the hall toward the bathroom. Her mother's check is in my hand, hidden from her. What do I say? What do I do?
Danny Pelletier is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at Goddard College. He works as a freelance newspaper and magazine writer in central New York, where he lives with his wife. He's currently working on his first novel.