Improvisations

A girl drives south through the desert. It’s a drive she’s made before. Towards or away? Always away, with her. She watches the clouds building on the horizon for bodies and the road for metal, thinking of the time she drove to the mall to buy a bathing suit and got caught in a dust storm coming home. Must have been sixteen, her first summer driving. Alone in a wall of dust. Only the palo verde branches coming through, like glow sticks, pale and ceremonial. 

And that’s all it takes: a dust storm, the kind that blew through every summer, to send Tallis’s memory in the wrong direction, back down that other road, home. To the red bowl her parents had. The one they cooled eggs in, acclimated goldfish from ziplocs, shelled peas. She doesn’t know whether they still have it, but they have a dog the color of a Holstein cow and a pool the color of moonstone, a gem she’d learned was cheap from the boy who gave her one. (Who asked for it back when he left.) A green poison control sticker covered half the speaker on the phone in the old kitchen. It hung nose-level, right next to the refrigerator. She’d curled the cord around herself for hours, holding for concert tickets, chipping at that sticker with a nail and trying to fill in the face behind those say-no hands. Copland, she thinks. Now that would be some hold music. 

Her father stood under floodlights in a backyard off of Butler one winter, watching her practice leads on a borrowed gelding. Leaned against the fence in his dress shirt after, balancing her saddle as she walked the horse, steam-backed, in squares. Her mother swabbed her earlobes with alcohol nightly the week she got them pierced. Potatoes and sewing needles, she said as she coaxed off the scabs with cotton, that’s what we had. Her mother, the only one to remember her blood type. There were only eight; how hard could it be? But Tallis still called to ask, and her mother always told her happily, as if B positive (negative?) was a memory they shared. The signs tell her how fast to go, the clouds tell her nothing. They wrote her name on cakes, on shirt tags and waivers. On her back, one letter at a time, until she guessed. Improvisations. Did Copland write any of those?

She passes the road to St. George. These steep grades scare her now. When did that happen? As if brakes were just a good fortune she kept lucking into. For years she’d stared at the pearled belly of St. George’s steed in that high window in church, and now she can’t even remember what the dragon looked like. Or if there was only a saint. If only. No one said that anymore: if only. Which kept it beautiful. Just like they’d kept her name beautiful by making her guess it again, letter by letter, before sleep. 

A sign for the turn-off to the lake goes by. A friend, Dana, took her boating there once. Desert boating! Grand-sounding, dumb as a brochure. The boat belonged to Dana’s father. They picked Tallis up early that morning, last. You’re Guardian of the Cooler, okay? he said, reaching back to pat the top of the Coleman like a good horse. She nodded, squeezed in over it so her nose and knees almost touched, and all the way there the backseat was one story: a boy in Dana’s brother’s class had gotten tangled in an outboard that spring and lost a leg. The boys speculated about whether the leg was still in the lake. Course not, someone said. That’s primo fish food. All right, their father said, all right, and turned up George Strait. When they got there, everyone told Tallis to stay back as he reversed down the launch, like she was even big enough for ruin then. Just stay back. When you pulled over in a dust storm, were you supposed to leave your lights on, or turn them off? She used to know. 

Handel’s Keyboard Suite in F minor comes on the radio, faint but there. You, greasewood, are today and forever adagio. They’d turned off the motor far from shore, and everyone jumped over the side. Tallis went last, her hand pressed to her hip because every month she read magazines about girls whose swimming suits fell off, untied, disappeared into mortifying lakes. It was hard to swim, it turned out, with one hand on your hip. She daggled around the front of the boat, feeling for fish with her toes while her friend dove under and goosed the boys. They yelped and splashed. Their voices skipped back to them from the red rocks and she turned on her back and wondered what age this was that she had failed to be. Now she stays in the right lane, an old habit drilled in by her father, along with the egg under her foot. A semi overtakes her and its draft heavies her grip on the wheel. Midday thoughts for piano. By Copland. Yes, those were his.

Off. The answer returns to her, as so much of life does, like a promise she forgot she’d made but still kept. It fills her in, almost voiced: lights off, foot off the brake, so no one barrels into you, thinking you are still moving. She knew that then. How to say stay back, world. Signs for diners lawyers God zip past and she can’t read any of them because she is watching for dust and metal and bodies and sun through the belly of a cloud-white horse. 

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