Marsh Creek Lament by Ethan Chatagnier
There’s an exact street where the grid of the town gives way to the wild hills. Turn left or right and you’re in a subdivision. Straight ahead and the road starts to bend. Past the pumpkin patch. Past the food store. Then nothing but thirty miles of unlit asphalt and whatever you brought with you. I had a tape for this drive, a tape I’d made by cutting song after song from disc to cassette on my stereo. This was in the age of the CD but my little pickup, and hand-me-down from my dad, was from the previous age. I was up to eighty after the last stoplight in town. My hasty shifting made the cab smell like my clutch. I liked that smell. When I pulled the clutch out a couple years later it looked like a shredded bird’s nest, and even without knowing that I knew it was worth the damage, worth it for that feeling of accelerating fast enough to escape your own life.
I loved this road. I loved it in the daylight for its winding curves, its oak canopies, and horse fences. In the winter the hills were blanketed in a light green grass so lush it hurt your eyes, and in the summer the grass faded to the color of dried corn. I loved it even more in the night for the way it erased those things. There were no streetlights. There was nothing but your own headlights futilely trying to outpace you. That was my age of wanting to erase things. The classmates at my school who didn’t know how to be human, the anchors on the nightly news who seemed shellacked into their chairs, every polo-shirted insurance adjuster who pulled up next to me at a stoplight and raised an eyebrow at my dented up truck that clearly belonged in some other town. It wasn’t a desire to harm anyone. Just clear it all out. Myself included. Replace it with something kinder.
I’d seen the photographs that day, the photographs of my friend Leah that had been circulating through the school since Monday, passed around like letters from the front. For every copy the administrators—so gray-faced this week, so nauseated—confiscated, three more seemed to pass from hand to hand, blowing through the quad, hastily thrown on a trash can. The vice principals barely spoke, their lives shrunk to a pinhole they hoped they might manage to squeeze out of in a week. They knew and we knew there was no way some pervert teacher hadn’t snuck a copy home; you could see them hoping for their best case scenario in which such an indiscretion would go undiscovered. This was my first understanding of them as something more complicated than adversaries and jailers. Their simplistic, amoral reaction to the events was not who they wanted to be. They were full people on the other side of the curtain, and yet the lurking threat on the other end of this—they knew there could be jail time for someone who fucked this up—made them disappear behind it.
On the other hand, the kids at the school were not yet people. They were monsters of cruelty and indifference and lust, of lashing-out pain, of anything-for-a-laugh. They were creatures of the basest classism and racism and reflexive misogyny. Of look-at-me. Of look-at-you. They were high schoolers. They were nothing more. What was an exposed body to them except a thing against which to orient themselves. I had not spoken to any of them in a week. I had called Leah’s house in the mornings. I had called after school, before bed. I had called at dinner time, hoping to annoy her parents into answering. Wednesday after school I’d knocked on her door. Thursday after school I knocked on her door, then waited, waited in my truck where I could see her window because the thought had occurred to me that something like this could be so dislocating that even someone as sturdy as Leah might try something drastic. I waited until I saw her silhouette in the window, and then I drove away.
Friday after school I went from class to class, collecting the week’s homework from her teachers. I didn’t care if she did her homework, but she’d always minded her grades carefully. I wanted her to open the door and see the packet there and know that a world still existed that would shelter her, that there was still an unmolested space for her in which someone would look at her without whispering to their neighbor, in which boys wouldn’t scroll their eyes to her feet and back every time they saw her. I walked from hall to hall, fantasizing that I’d stumble across Jason Kleimer, Leah’s burnout ex-boyfriend who worked the photo counter at the drugstore. I imagined I’d see him skulking across the campus, bunch his shirt in my hands, and throw him to the ground. I imagined a bloodied rip across his cheek and pain in my hand. But he hadn’t been to school in a week either.
How quickly the school clears out on the last day of the week. The teachers were gone even faster than the students. I caught half of Leah’s teachers on their way to the parking lot and dragged them back to their classrooms. I could see the questions they wanted to ask me. I was struck by how close the muck of the human soul was to the surface, how easy it was to stir mud into the water. I don’t know, I don’t know, I told them, and they gave me last week’s homework and the next’s.
Chilly November winds swept the empty campus. The oak tree in the quad shivered. It was spray-painted with a million in-jokes and coded messages. A consultant had told the school it was dying from all the paint. Food wrappers, grease paper, graded classwork, and all manner of school detritus moseyed around the clearing in the breeze, and there, in my path, was the white 4x6 rectangle of an upside-down photograph. I put it in my pocket without looking at it, planning to drop it inconspicuously into a trash can. I felt its rough cut edges against my fingertips. Photo prints are the only thing that feels like that, a slight concave warp built into the shape from sitting in a white paper envelope. The white envelope feels like crumpled paper bags, like butcher paper, like a cheap napkin, but the photo paper feels only like itself. And with that particular photo, it felt like a murder weapon in my pocket, my attention so tuned to it I began to imagine it was heating up.
When I saw the removed stand of trees between B-wing and C-wing, the whole external corridor grayed out, half-effaced by the afternoon shadows, I ducked into it and sat on the little bench someone had built for their Eagle Scout project. I only planned to look for a second. I would look for a second, tear it in half, and put the pieces back in my pocket to dispose of them. I could trust myself with the knowledge, could trust my intentions—I had no prurient interest; I didn’t even know why I so needed to see it.
The photograph was graphic. They were in the act. It showed everything. Leah’s legs extended up toward the camera, the perspective enlarging them. Her feet disappeared past the camera. But what I couldn’t look away from was her face. The face of my friend making an expression I had never seen before. Wherever she had been looking, it was close enough to the camera’s aperture to make it look like she was staring right out of the photograph. It was one of those photographs you could lock eyes with, and that’s what it seemed to want, to extend its gaze through the frame and command your attention. Her eyebrows were turned up, as if in question or shock, her mouth slightly open in an uncareful way. Her neck was tensed. The expression was pleasure and surprise and overwhelmed senses and a reaching openness, that whole stew of emotions sex can dredge up—the paradox of sex, how it can make a person look beautiful and like they are about to sneeze at the same time.
I guess the gist, the source of the growing emptiness I felt as I looked at the picture for much more than a second, is that you have no right to see someone cry. You don’t get to see their crying face unless they let you. Only this was many times more sacred and personal. I shredded the photo, but I couldn’t shred the time I’d spent looking at it.
So I hit the turns too fast. There’s no better way to learn you have a code than to violate it in some unforgivable way. That night, when I couldn’t close my eyes without seeing the face I’d had no right to see, I blasted through them needing to feel my body pulled outward, needing to feel like a few more mph would roll me over like a block. I was used to driving this road fast. I knew the markers, even in the dark, knew when I’d light up the rock formation painted to look like an eye, knew when I’d see the lit towers of the prison aways off on the ridge, knew which of the scattered houses on the hillsides would leave their porch lights on all night.
I didn’t know I’d see myself. There was a car in the gravel turnout around one of the long bends, and though I was going so fast they should have been a blur, time slowed down, allowing me to see the couple arguing in front of the car. Standing in the glow of their headlights, they looked as if they were being broadcast from a movie projector. I knew the man was me. I thought damn I got chubby. Was I really wearing khakis and a lime green sweater? Was that a goddamn Subaru? But I didn’t doubt it was me. His head turned from the woman he was arguing with to follow my truck, and I know he knew it was me too.
Should I stop to help them? I wondered.
But my thoughts had not slowed the way my vision had and by the time I’d finished thinking it they were in my rearview.
I was never able to shake the conviction that I’d seen myself. I knew it was crazy. My rational brain didn’t believe it. But the rational brain, I think, represents something less than thirty percent of the whole. I remember him straightening, turning his head to follow the truck. Disbelief. Recognition. Who can you tell about something like that? I never told anyone. Whatever the other seventy percent of the brain is, it waited for that moment from that day on. I thought of it every time I put on that lime green sweater. When I saw that sweater in J. Crew, when I bought it, I’d felt I was ensuring the encounter.
But when the night it comes, I’m taken off guard. I’m driving us back from my wife’s parents’ house in Pleasanton when we blow a tire. It’s sidewalled, totally shredded. Sheila says I drifted across the shoulder and nipped the side the hill. I say it just went out. She says to pull over. I say where?
“You’re ruining the rim,” she says.
“Do you want me to stop in the middle of the road?” I ask. “A curvy, unlit back road in the middle of the night. I have to go the next turnout.”
And I do, and there we are, in the turnout. The blowout woke the baby and she’s holding him outside so he doesn’t wake the toddler. She whisper-hisses at me and I quiet-yell back and I searching uselessly for a cellular signal. Our hazard lights click as they flash on and off, making us look insane. When the light hits us from a different angle, Sheila waves at the driver to flag him down but I don’t. Once it begins to round the curve, the lights stop blasting me directly and I can make out the silhouette of truck, as familiar to me as my children. I know, then, the moment I’m in. I look in the cab. I see his face. My old face.
We lock eyes.
And I remember the question I asked all those years ago, the one thing I wanted to know from that future self I couldn’t stop for: A kernel of yourself forms when you do something like that and it sits in your mouth, down beside your gums, in a way that makes you want to spit it out, but when you do, there it is again, right where it was before. I’d been spitting it out for seven hours that day, spitting it out constantly. That’s what I was asking from behind those headlights: does it go away? The shame, the knowledge of who you are, of that thing is inside you that makes you fail yourself? Will it leave me? Will it let me live my life? Only now, standing in the glare of them, I knew the answer.
Ethan Chatagnier is the author of Warnings from the Future, a short story collection from Acre Books. His stories have been awarded a Pushcart Prize and been published in Glimmer Train, New England Review, Georgia Review, and other journals. He is a graduate of Fresno State and Emerson College, and now lives in Fresno, California, with his family.