When Sarah was younger she cut back the weeds on her grandmother Theresa’s grave with a pawnshop kukri. Her mother Georgina at her side with a rustspattered sickle. Slide of hammerhard hand across Sarah’s shoulder. By then Georgina wore a blue apron for split shifts and elevated her feet when she got home. Georgina had been lean like a dancer when Sarah was little, when she moved tongues of red steel under the drop hammer, poured molten metal from a ceramic cup down prescribed channels. Her gut poked over her jeans a little by the time she and Sarah got round to cutting back the scrub. But her hands were still as hard as they had ever been. Sarah and her mother had worked in the juncture between fall and winter, which Sarah had thought was a cussed godawful time to be cutting back weeds. Everything was yellow, and the life of things felt to be not just sleeping, but gone entirely. The sedge and wild rosemary so many spent illformed arrowshafts pricking the ground. They worked covered up with dollarstore pigskin gloves, with the rasp of breath blown out in coats of white from their noses. They barely said a word to each other that day. They would wrap their hands round a quiff of grass then saw it away from beneath. Toss the spillage into a pile, and leave the stubble in swathes. Sarah was sixteen. Georgina’s knife rising and falling like the sword of a household god. Protectrix in denim and flannel. Rising exhausted from the work, Sarah had seen her at the cut and wished to slide her hands over Georgina’s arms, place her head across Georgina’s back to nock at the crook of shoulder and neck.
Now Sarah is 21 years old. The four-lane is splayed milky and cattahral with spillage from hi-beams, signal noise blown upward to a greyed-out sky. She leans on the zincoated guardrail two miles from the walmart where her mother worked until she passed. Four lanes no streetlights for some six miles and the hotel on the other side of the highway. Roadsalt crackle as Sarah shifts her weight. Run now, without concern. This is is nothing but a moment in a series of moments. No greater than what came before or what may come after. Clear now. Quick and expressionless she sprints across so quick that only the van in the final lane gives out a honk and a screech of brakes. Now three more miles to the motel through the black on streets of shrinking diameter. Sky overhead greying quickly to black.
Clots of cataracted ice roadside, past dialysis centers, officepark, warehouse, waste ground wired off with fence. Her car is some twenty miles away in the shop. Five hundred dollars for a lump of cast steel so now through the black to the motel. Halogen flouresces in high steel braziers. It’s not yet so cold that it hurts to breathe. Off road now, she traces her way long a footpath between two fourstory officebuildings, then through a copse of interstitial pines, half-choked with run-off and roadway effluent. The motel rising up before her thankfully well-lit, fifty-year old futurity hanging amber in the glow from the parking lot lights.
Orange-purple carpet and an entryway as large as it is graceless behind an overhigh laminated desk sits Martin with nametag and black dress shirt in a swivel chair reading People. He folds the magazine double looks at Sarah standing with the cold still on her in jeans and great swaddled jacket, and smiles. His features are a little pinched, as if someone wrung out his face once, but his smile is generous. He says “Evenin’ Sarah.”
Sarah says, “Evening, Martin.”
He says, “What room?”
She says, “206.”
“You know him?”
“No. You recognize him?”
“He look alright?”
“He looked clean enough.”
By the entrance there are two plastic urns next to a stack of styrofoam cups. Sarah says, “Can I get a little coffee?”
“Martin, I do appreciate this.”
“The lord keep you and preserve you Sarah. How long?”
Clasp of his hand and hers together, quick and dry. Prayer masked by the perfunctory. Then down the corridors to 206.
Theresa had lived in a trailer way set back from the county road, midst pines sunk like giant’s spears into red clay. When Sarah first saw her grandmother’s spread, plastic sheeting had flapped vagrant off the metal skeletons of greenhouses, marked too by tall weeds in square patches of fertilized soil. In the trailer her grandmother had a piano on which she arranged choral music. The inside of the trailer was coated with floral wallpaper over foamed insulation buttressed by an aluminum frame. Homey enough Sarah supposed, except when the wind blew and the steel bolts whined against the aluminum like a great animal glutted with anxiety.
When they would visit when Sarah was young, Georgina, her, and Theresa would eat fried chicken, biscuits, gravy from the half-fallen in place down the road. She remembers that the earth was so glutted with rain one night that her grandmother had to whipsaw her Crown Vic to keep it on the road. Both her mother and her grandmother were quiet, as trees appeared and disappeared in front of them. Sarah, eight years old, leant over her waxpaper prize so it wouldn’t fall in all the commotion. She had screamed once, and stopped. Fear was more abstract then. After they had arrived back at the trailer, her mother scolded her for the stains on her dress. Her grandmother had said quietly. “I never wore a dress so clean, except on a Sunday. Neither did you growing up, I recall. Children mess themselves Georgie.” Georgina had clamped her mouth shut and stared angrily at her mother, but when she brushed Sarah’s hair out of her eyes her touch was gentle. Sarah didn’t know what had passed between Georgina and her grandmother before she was born, but she knew it had concerned her father. She had pressed her mother about her father only once. She had been shocked by the extent of Georgina’s fury. “He doesn’t have anything to do with you,” her mother had said. It had hurt her, and perhaps was meant to. The legacy of all the women in her family. To be born to anonymous men, strive, and return diminished to the sites of their mother’s bones. But that wasn’t right. Her mother at dusk with the blade in hand. Her mother had not diminished, but compacted. Six hundred years later, you can tell the skeleton of a longbowman by the bones of its chest and shoulders. Scapula and humerus made gnarled and massive as old oak with the application of force. With the weight of the burden taken. Sarah knocks on the door of room 206. A man opens it.
Sarah says, “Roger?”
The man says, “That’s me.”
Roger leans against the door in a parody of ease, not careworn exactly, but rounded like a riverstone with a pouched out blue shirt and slacks fading unmemorable. Pale blue desert eyes, affectless. Possibly forty. She sees that he has put car keys wallet coins iphone receipts all the contents of his pockets into a fauxleather valet tray by the ancient CRT TV occluded grey and dead opposite a queen-sized bed coated in industrial bedding. “You yegrannie?”
“Yeah, I’m Ygrayne.”
She doesn’t know why she gives the names she does. Names outside the ambit of transaction. It just hurts her, like she’s showing some part of herself instead of covering herself up, which is, like, the point of a pseudonym. Amazing, how useless her mother’s attempts to educate her. At least in terms of producing any concrete difference in her life’s trajectory. He thumbs his belt, enough like a cowboy to look foolish. Wide cheeks, the kind of glasses that still get called spectacles. Innocuous enough looking, she supposes.
“You’re the hired pussy.”
Alright. He watches her with pink lips parted. She says, “You could say that, sure. It’s your time.”
“You want to sit with me.”
“Sure Roger, I’ll sit with you.” The name can through them off balance, make them rethink the terms of engagement. Make sure he knows it’s a choice, even if it isn’t. That she will walk out if she has to. If he thinks she isn’t willing to leave, he might— His hand comes down on her thigh, hard. Meat against meat, a little loud.
Well anyway. She puts her hand over his, clasps the back. Turn this into a choice. “There are cameras in the hallway, and the desk boy knows me. I’m not back in front of his desk in an hour and ten minutes, he’ll come looking for me. That clear?”
Roger removes his hand as if her body’s spoiled. “You post said you was friendly.”
Sarah says, “I’m very friendly, I just want to be clear.”
Roger nods, as if Sarah has voiced a profound truth. “You want a drink?”
“There’s Jack in the fridge. You want ice, you gotta run down the hall to the machine.”
“I don’t want ice.”
“I want ice.”
She doesn’t say anything.
If you bend too much this one will hurt you. Preserve yourself . “Yes honey?”
“Get me some ice, would you?”
“Alright honey.” Out into the heat and carpeting. The weight of his hand still on her thigh. His flesh made of strange matter, heavier than it should be. His want transfigured by pressure into something more like hate. Unseeing use. Covetousness, her grandmother called it. Thou shalt not covet.
She twirls the coverless icebucket at the end of her finger, almost easeful and young. She is young. Then percussion of ice against ice, orderly fingerlings of silver. Water is always old, or always young. Ageless, she supposes. With the absence of consciousness there can be no age. But that’s not quite right she thinks, as she retraces her footsteps, icebucket held now primly at her side. She can imagine the water laughing in the glaciers and the creeks and the air, ageless and thoughtful, loss’s fierce negative. She pushes open the cracked door of the hotel room. So it’s not consciousness that makes things age. Something else—
He is waiting by the door. His hand slides around her hip and grabs her buttock and she feels gutted like a fish on a board. He seeks the crease of her ass through her jeans and her panties. Diplomatically she deposits the icebucket on the outstretched arm of a chair while she pushes her rear against his crotch. He is soft, which is frightening. Physical desire is less dangerous than its thwarted alternatives. He pulls away so she stumbles back, and says, “make me a drink.”
The cemetery her grandmother is buried in is cupped between a strip mall and a Target, some ten miles away from the hotel room where she now stands, making Roger a drink. The church which her grandmother had attended from girlhood having been choked off by evangelicalism and knocked down. Between the mall and the Target there’s a half-mile stretch of wilding. It contains corpses of uncertain provenance with no likely disposition, and so was spared further development.
Five years ago Sarah and her mother had to park at the Target and cut out through the back past rows of dumpsters, jump the runoff ditch and wander by the grace of Georgina’s memory until they found the wrought-iron fence red with with rust and collapsed in places bounding some few dozen headstones green with moss or else half-rotted with acid rain. Thankfully the place was up high and cut back, so there wasn’t much in the way of leaf cover.
Roger mashes his hands against her breasts, well armored by sweater and bra, and says, “The boy out front, he your pimp?”
“Martin.” She moves away from him. “We were in bible school together.”
“You went to bible school with your pimp?”
“He isn’t like that. He does it so that no one hurts me. He doesn’t ask for anything.”
He a Christian then?”
“Yeah. A baptist.”
Watching a hoor do her work doesn’t sound very Christian.”
Bite your tongue—
Sarah says, “He seems to think that he’s doing the lord’s work”
Roger says, “I’m a Christian, and—”
Sarah says, “Look, you want to fuck or not?” He is silent, She turns round with her head down so that she doesn’t have to meet his eyes and unthreads his belt, unthreads the button of his khakis, threads her hand through the gap between gut and fabric, and begins to briskly stroke him. So quickly, hopefully, that he will not imagine himself to be ashamed at his softness and strike her.
There is a a dry, stale taste in the back of Sarah’s mouth. She applies lubricant before they begin, so there is little pain. Just the weight of him over her, something alien inside her that must be moved away from. And the sounds and sights of the room. The creak of the bed, movement of synthetic fiber over fiber, breath bottled up in his throat expelling itself in prim snorts through his nose, no, better to break away from that and grip his heavy hips in her hands as if to urge him on and look up at the stucco ceiling ruched like her grandmother’s dresses, off-white nicotinic beige after many washings. Something alien in her guts, and something not quite pleasure but its negative, and she drifts off and up towards the ceiling, a cloud of vapor or rarified vacuum.
Georgina and Sarah had shaved the graveyard raw right out to the rusted fence so that in some places the earth stood out frozen and brittle-seeming, though very hard. The sky was reddening to purple, and the trees were shapes of shadow larger than themselves. Georgina placed her hand circumspectly on her mother’s headstone, and removed it when she saw that Sara was watching. The moon was a pocket of diffuse white, way up in the purpling dark. Sweatcrusted they picked their way through the forest.
By the time they got to the Target the air was colder, and the sky was a dark blue, with only a clot of cream in the far west. The pylon lights over their car cast geometric shadows on the blacktop.
Georgina said, “That was good.”
They ate in a diner that night, which was a rare indulgence. They had large burgers, heapings of fries. Georgina said, “Your grandmother had an interesting relationship to the kind of work we did today.”
Sarah said “Hmm?” She was sixteen and she was trying to be herself, which meant trying to disregard her mother, which was hard, because she felt that her mother commanded attention.
“She farmed, for many years. She raised me on her own. You know this. She didn’t want me to have to do things like that too. But I did. She was angry at that. She didn’t ever really forgive me for doing what I did for a living, even though it was out of necessity. Working in a factory, now in a store. She wanted better. I think she would have been proud to see her granddaughter with a blade in her hand. Or not. I don’t know. I don’t know if I ever fully understood her.” She retied a sprig of hair that had escaped the bound mass at the back of her head. She looked like she wanted to touch Sarah, but she choose to attend to her food instead.
Five years after Georgina did not have the bravery to touch Sarah, and two years after Georgina died of a heart attack in the produce section of the Walmart, Roger grunts, half-pulls out, reaches down a hand between them, she thinks to pull off the condom, and she thrusts up her hips three times to slay the spear that slays her and he finishes and slumps like a slaughtered pig across her thin frame. Bristebacked chest, cold sweat, his breath like sweet milk. Weight without mass, and she, cupping something warm, living and secret in the space behind her sternum, something that she cannot touch without hurting herself but must nonetheless protect, like the liquid fire her mother once poured—
He rolls off her and says, “That was forty-five minutes. I’ll pay you for forty-five.”
She stands up, a little ache between her legs and nothing more. No marks, save for a reddening around her hips where his weight pressed down on her. Nothing felt or to be felt Now that his desire is abated he seems to her languorous and sloppy, a pig at leisure. She says “No, you’ll pay me the whole My rate’s by the act, same difference.”
His brow wrinkles. “Act?”
“Fucking. The act of fucking.”
“You pay me for the fuck or by the hour, whichever comes first. If we go over the hour, you pay for another hour.”
He shrugs, and says, “My wallet’s by the TV.”
She grabs it, and tosses it to him.
He peels off five twenties, pauses, adds a sixth. He says, “Buy yourself something nice.”
She says “Thanks honey,” and kisses him on the cheek. She shuts the door quietly behind herself. Roger has already turned on the TV.
Martin looks up from his magazine when she comes out and says, “Just one tonight?”
Sarah says, “Yes, just him.”
“I can give you a ride to your house if you want. But it’s about three hours before I get off.”
“No, I’ll walk.”
Outside to the ice and the cold. Sarah is still thinking about water, and aging. Perhaps we age because we are capable of change. Our molecules split, release energy, collect parcels of entropy like prayer beads, our cells divide and in so doing reduce themselves, our skin thins, our corneas lighten towards white, or else clot with yellow. Sarah’s grandmother was sixty-four when she died, still hale. An aneurysm in the night. It must have been so easy. The silence, perhaps dreams, then a wordless flash of light, and then nothing. In the safety of the home that she had made for herself. Sarah’s mother died quickly too, put down like a bull stunned by an axe handle. Only forty-one. The same age as Roger, or close, but her mother was so powerful, and Roger is so insubstantial, Sarah is already forgetting him though she left him ten minutes ago. It hurts Sarah, to think of her dying mother’s cheek against a linoleum floor, her eyes uplifted not to thankful dark or sun but towards fluorescent lights in cages, ribbed warehouse ceilings.
It hurts to breathe the air now. The night was easy, but she is so tired. She doesn’t know why she should think about these things tonight, no different than any other night. Her grandmother in the parlorroom with hands bent from laborborn arthritis, playing and singing Swing Low Sweet Chariot. The walls with samplers and patterned wallpaper. The paradox of a life devoted to hard labor; no trace of it left, save in the bone’s deep throb. Sarah was once in the house of a wealthy man on her knees and saw a miner’s pick hung on his wall polished so it shone. On the wall of a wealthy man with soft hands. Better, she supposed, that her grandmother and her mother should have had the choice to excise the greater part of their histories. Better to forget, if forgetting was what was freely chosen, and instead to mark the walls of one’s home with desiderata picked out in cross-stitch. Armor the walls of the home with soft objects. And perhaps they had borne the marks of labor in the most secret places of themselves, and that was enough. The ache in the bones of gravel and dust and iron brought out of the secret places which are forever warm. Or her grandmother’s hands caught in hard labor at the plow, the wringer, the rack, bluing clothes in a zinccoated bucket, steam from fireheated water like the smoke of animal sacrifice. In midwinter the bucket cutting a magic circle of meltwater through the snow to reveal the wizened green beneath. Her mother and grandmother bore remembrance in the twist of their hands. But what remembrance for her?
The insides of her thighs hurt. This to be the legacy of the things she has lived? Her labor ending in an ache way down deep, and nothing sanctified, but scraped raw instead? Well, better than being forgot. Clasp it close like a flame amidst a great darkness. This is yours. Like they say of rifles in the the army there are many like it but this one is yours—
Look away to the east and orange fire, rising. What you have you keep. The sun is a bowl of molten iron, waiting to be poured. Square your shoulders and bend towards the light.