I Crossed My Arms and Shook My Head
by Murray Dunlap
I'd hung half a ceiling of drywall by the time the radio announced the first plane crashed in to the North Tower. The contractor, Elvis Moon, stomped into the house yelling did you hear it, did you hear it? And since Gary listened to a little radio while he worked in the room above me, we had. There were sections around the fireplace where Gary could hand me nails or a chalk line, straight though the floor, or ceiling, depending on your point of view. So yes, we heard it. All of it. And I'd instantly said it's the War of the Worlds. After I told Gary what that meant, we both got a good laugh in. I held up one hand and said Martians land in New Jersey, then held up the other and said planes crash into The World Trade Center. Neither one of us believed it was true.Elvis stood under the hole in the ceiling and said got-damn got-damn! I think it's for real. They had it on another station in my pick-up. Elvis smelled of pot and beer. He was the first one on-site, and I assumed he slept in his truck.
Despite the cold, I was sweating already and stripped out of my canvas jacket. I opened a Coke and leaned against a sawhorse, listening to the news. This may sound strange, but all I really thought about was the girl with almond skin. Gary handed the radio down to Elvis and ran around to the stairwell. By the time he made it into the room, they were saying a second plane had hit the South Tower. Reports of fires and explosions and men and women leaping to their deaths came in minute by minute. The girl with almond skin felt like electricity against my fingertips.
"I can't believe they got two of them." I said.
"Who's they?" Gary asked.
"The people who crashed the planes." I said.
"Shit man, what the fuck do we know?"
"With one crash, yeah. We know dick. But now they have two," I said.
"Still," Gary said.
Now we all stood in silence. Now I believed it was true. I couldn't help but think of our proximity to Washington D.C., a hundred miles at most, as we cowered around a little black radio in rural Virginia. The girl with almond skin lived in D.C. She knew about Charlotte, but Charlotte didn't know about her. The radio reported a third plane. Now the Pentagon was on fire. I tried to make a map in my head of the Pentagon and the girl with almond skin's apartment. It seemed as if you could throw a rock from one to the other.
Elvis Moon hitched up his pants under an enormous belly. He grabbed at his thick beard and stuck out his tongue.
"Times like this," he said. "I like to be at home drinking and holding my gun."
"Fucked up," Gary said. "Who knows what's next."
"D.C.," I said. "I'd bet they hit D.C. again. It's too good a target."
"And it ain't far from here," Gary said.
"Fuckin ain't." Elvis raised his brow and bugged out his eyes. "Fuckin ain't far at all."
"What do we do now?" I asked. I imagined driving to D.C. through a shower of crashing planes. I'd scoop up the girl with almond skin into my arms and run from the burning building. I'd carry her into the woods, laughing by the time we felt safe, pressing our foreheads together and making grand, sweeping promises.
"Shit," Gary said. "Work, I guess."
"Yep. We still got jobs," Elvis said. "Turn that shit up so we can hear it while we work."
"So we're working," I said. I knew Charlotte would drive to the work site any minute now. She would say she was worried. She would use this to check in.
"Finish this ceiling," Elvis said. "It ain't gonna drywall itself."
I was cold again, so I put my jacket on and started to work.
I sat with Charlotte in our little cabin, the fire in the woodstove and the coffeemaker spitting and popping as if in conversation. We sat on barstools at the butcher's block tabletop drinking wine with the dog curled up beneath us. A ring of pots and pans hung above our heads. The radio was off. I kept a bottle of scotch and a pistol under my socks.
The girl with almond skin worked at the capital for a southern senator. She worked around the clock. She knew a man who was killed. By the end of the month, we all would. I went to see her on the 12th, taking the day off work, lying to Charlotte, and driving fast up 29 North. I felt electricity in my hands with every curve of the road. I looked up at a clear sky as I drove, nothing but birds breaking the blue.
The girl with almond skin opened her door and grabbed my waist, something like shock in her eyes, and held me tight. I couldn't think of anything to say, so I kissed her. I kissed her hard and slid a hand under her shirt.
"Is this what you want?" she asked.
"What do you want?"
"Everything." She put a hand on my belt.
"I want you now," I said.
"Later we'll go out for lunch. We'll pretend it isn't dangerous."
I pushed the black skirt off her hips and onto the floor.
Elvis Moon stomped into the house, smelling of pot and beer, and hitched up his pants.
"Finish the fucking ceiling," he said.
"I'm almost there," I said. "I'll mud it, sand it, paint it."
"He got here early," Gary said. "Way before me."
"Makin' up is good, but not missin' in the first place is better."
"I'm working hard," I said. "I'm getting it right."
"Is that why I see gaps around the electric plugs and chimney?"
"I can fill it with mud."
"Not that wide." Elvis put a finger between the drywall and socket. "You mud this and it'll crack and fall out. Do it again."
I crossed my arms and shook my head.
Charlotte kept the dog, the bed, and the cabin. I moved out. Elvis Moon threw a bucket of wet cement at my head, so I quit. The girl with almond skin married the Senator's son and took up in a house on Martha's Vineyard. I sent her a letter of congratulations. I even think I meant it.
This may sound strange, but I smiled all the way out of Virginia. I drove south with all I owned in a trailer behind me, a blue sky marked by crossing planes, gliding smooth and fast to intended destinations. I passed into Tennessee, still smiling, and waved at a pretty girl sitting on a bench in front of a truck-stop diner. She looked up, seemed to know me, and reached her hand skyward with every finger outstretched. She waved as I drove. Between us, a field of heather seemed not to know the season. In a shade of fire engine red, it bloomed.
Murray Dunlap, a native of Alabama, received his terminal degree in creative writing from the brilliant Pam Houston. His work has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, New Delta Review, Night Train, Red Mountain Review, The Greenbelt Review, Fried Chicken and Coffee and others. His fiction has been nominated to Best New American Voices and the Pushcart Prize. Dunlap's first book, Alabama, was a finalist for the Maurice Prize in fiction. Having very nearly died in a car wreck last year, the writer is fighting to walk again and trying not to go insane.