You stash things up in those woods they might not be there when you come back. All of us who hid things up there we couldn’t keep at home lost something, followed our own paths back to find the hollow of an oak empty, rusty bucket overturned. Pack of GPC’s missing the lucky. Bottle of Old Crow stolen from somebody’s pops stolen again, drank down, black feathers on the label soaked by wet leaves, bird’s eye rubbed off by eager fingers. Eager fingers down in those trailers and up in those woods, so what did it matter? Black dirt under the nails. Sour breath, anyway, and pleading.
My best almost-cousin Wanda lost it up there. To Jesse Walburn. Same place her sister lost it. Under the tarp stretched over what was left of the old El Camino, seat cushions long since eaten out by mice and the skinny deer crowded into those woods. A stunted grove of ash saplings pushed through its guts into the rusty hood, small grateful tendrils escaping to make mint green leaves in the spring, the kind that clap in the wind, shimmer.
By the time we were fourteen, fifteen, we were out of questions and made-up answers, too. It was just part of those woods.
Nobody knew how the car got there—how could someone drive it between the trees, whether down from the highway or up from the dirt road behind the trailers? Kids who played chase and hide-and-seek up there asked those kinds of questions. By the time we were fourteen, fifteen, we were out of questions and made-up answers, too. It was just part of those woods. Like the warped blue missile pits, empty red shotgun casings. A shelter that saved us from rain.
Before she left Carleton, up and left Michigan altogether, Wanda’s sister warned us about Jesse trying to take our cherries, how good he was at talking a girl into it.
No way I was going to let that happen to me. Or to Wanda, who was nearly blood, whose family had lived in the trailer next to ours since our grandparents’ real houses got bought out by the government for the missile site. Our windows faced each other and even without phones Wanda and I could call each other in the night, which we did a lot when our brothers were away. Before they left they were just boys, still kid-skinny, but somehow able to keep our dads and uncles in check just by hanging around.
I wasn’t at the party the night Jesse first started fixing to split our lives down the middle like the sweet maple up there’d been struck by lightning and opened. I stayed home on account of my brother being sick enough for the hospital, so I missed seeing exactly how it was Jesse got Wanda all the way to third base on his first try.
I remember watching as Mom put Denny in the car. I knew he couldn’t see me because I was on the side where his eye turned up like a birth-clot. My palms were cold as I took my niece, Reba, into my arms.
The doctors never did anything, could never explain why Denny was fine one minute, collapsed and couldn’t breathe the next. But when it got that bad we couldn’t keep him at home, sit there and watch him die on the linoleum.
Bethany, my brother’s girl, looked quick but deep into my eyes, nodded slightly, like she always did when she gave Reba over to me on a hospital run.
I nodded back and gathered Reba close.
Beth came up in those trailers, too, and we didn’t need words. I was to keep Reba from my dad, who’d be home with us until his midnight shift at Fermi. I wouldn’t go to sleep until he left, then I’d curl up in Beth and Denny’s bed with Reba, watch the way her long black lashes fluttered on her cheeks while she dreamed. I’d pretend she was mine, despite the danger in that.
I was probably even glad for the occasional night off the party. You needed a good excuse not to go, something to tell whatever boy.
But because I wasn’t there that September night it was Marcy Walters who held Wanda’s hair while she threw up, Marcy who said, Jesse, you shit, she’s too drunk to choose. Marcy was three years older, was one of Jesse’s first, so she could talk at him like that. But she couldn’t stop it. Things happened fast up in those woods.
Things happened fast up in those woods.
Marcy came by the next morning and stood on our stoop. Right away I knew why, knew it had started. I didn’t need to be told about Wanda on her knees in a thicket, warned about where it was headed and fast: El Camino. Shorthand for rupture, ruin.
All I’m saying’s your girl might need an ear this morning, Marcy said.
Soon as mom got home, I gave Reba up and snuck two Stroh’s from the lean-to fridge, took Wanda to the woods. Damp Sunday morning, we tucked ourselves in the crotch the storm had given that big old maple. The break was already worn. You couldn’t even see the scar anymore, the splinters having tossed themselves down and gotten swallowed by the earth, the bright yellow gone, just sap clinging to the back of our pants as we sucked off the beers, hair of the dog.
I don’t even know how it happened, Wanda said. I remember more about puking him up with the whiskey after. She tried to laugh, tucked a piece of loose hair into her long brown braid.
I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to make a plan, somehow invent a world where we could erase the night before. I wanted to comfort her, touch her hair, but I didn’t know how.
Finally, Wanda said, Jesse’s got the magic, though. Does he ever.
She said it to cover up, to make believe one night with Jesse meant she was ahead of me suddenly. Like she actually felt something for him, whatever it was we were supposed to feel for those boys who panted and scraped at us, so close to what happened at home we promised never to say out loud. I knew her well enough to know she was scared, both during and after. It was true we were coming apart, but that wasn’t the reason, me not knowing how to want.
Jesse. Tall with a dry voice. The muscle in his cheek that twitched when he was thinking, when he bit his cigarette. My brother’s best friend in junior high. They were still friends once in awhile, usually when Jesse wanted to smoke. That’s probably half of what saved me. My brother Denny winking with his good eye, standing in the kitchen with his IV pole in one hand and a joint in the other saying, Don’t even think about it, buddy.
No way, man. It’s cool, Jesse said. His eyes wet and dark and watchful.
It was early summer, then, and I watched from the kitchen window when he left. He stopped at the rose bushes outside our trailer and did like all the boys, laid a petal over his curled hand to pop it with the other hand, leave a slit up its middle. Other boys did it just because. He knew why he did it. He wasn’t a boy, neither. He looked up at me through the glass grey with grease and smoke and smiled.
Once, when I was about ten and Denny was fourteen, walking in those woods on the ridge at the far edge near the highway, I spotted a grave marked by a tied-together cross, black shoelaces wrapped around and around. We knew the graves of animals, our pets, those killed on the road, and those hunted, were marked with heavy rocks out there, and we walked a wide swath around them. This was something else. Because we had no secrets from each other—just secrets we were all keeping together—and those woods were ours, we dug up the grave. We cleared the crumbling dirt from the plastic bag to find a rosary and a lock of hair, the newspaper photograph of a woman, es que loca something scrawled across the bottom just before the final word was melted by mud leaking in. It was wet up in those woods.
We got Gracie Alvarado to translate: is it crazy—what? To think he’d find the woman? This man who had her hair? Did she give it? Or did he steal it, the sicko?
That was the first time I saw and really understood, Gracie’s belly out front like a basketball. She was fourteen. By the time her son was three everybody knew he was Jesse’s—if we’d ever doubted it. Spitting image. Boy even had his swagger.
Jesse denied it, called Gracie a spic and a wetback. He was the same way about America Johnson, said, You think I’d screw a nigger?
He forgot that we were all there, we saw him push America up against a tree because my brother already had Bethany over in the El Camino. Not like Jesse claimed the white babies he made, either. I wanted something to change, especially for America’s girl. But in a place like ours, I knew it wouldn’t. By the time America’s daughter was thirteen, there’d be another guy like Jesse, some kid who was Jesse’s, too, to call his own sister more than bitch and slut after. I can’t say if it was worse to be America than it was to be any of us because I don’t know, but it couldn’t have been better.
Gracie and America were thick as blood before all that, but after Jesse moved on from both of them, what was left of their friendship, that sisterhood like Wanda and I had? They stayed in their trailers changing diapers and twisting the phone cord while they waited for welfare to answer.
They stayed in their trailers changing diapers and twisting the phone cord while they waited for welfare to answer.
I didn’t want to lose it in those woods. I wanted those woods for myself. When we found old things up there I felt like I lived in a real place. Plenty of arrowheads up there. Coins. And on one of the special walks we took before he left for Kuwait, Denny found a tiny black pair of girl’s boots with what seemed a thousand eyelets for the laces. The kind someone might have worn in a covered wagon. Hanging in the crook of a tree for a hundred years, no doubt, and nobody happened to look sooner. You could never see everything about those woods, no matter how much time you spent looking.
Denny was getting worse, couldn’t climb up there anymore. Nobody could figure out what was wrong with his brain or his nerves, fix his lungs rattling in the night. I needed those woods, took my time to them the way people take time to church. In the afternoon sunlight, the tarp over the car made a blue world, like breathing in a swimming pool. Then, I could almost forget the boys, Jesse, my brother’s endless shakes. Plenty of times cutting school I curled there with a magazine and a candy bar, lost myself without drowning, woke cold but safe. As if I’d been asleep deeper than I slept at home.
I needed those woods so bad I almost lost it in the parking lot of the K-Mart—anywhere but trees—with Randy Vandler that summer but we came up short, him wiping his mouth, saying, I can’t do this. I think I still love Allie.
Allie was some girl from Keatington who’d never give it to Randy, I was pretty sure, but I felt relief spill into my chest, cool as the slurpees we bought and drank on the hood of his brother’s Camaro, waiting for the stars to come out bright.
I pulled Wanda toward me on that old tree, told her again that we could go anywhere we wanted if we just didn’t get knocked up.
What if you just stopped right now? I asked.
Guess I could, she said. But she didn’t believe it. Jesse always finished what he started. He got to almost all of us. Letting him was just part of growing up in the trailers near those woods. And if he didn’t want you, maybe there was something wrong with you.
After that day in the kitchen when I opened his beer, he watched me whenever we were all in those woods, his smile nothing of the coyotes that wailed up in those woods on autumn nights, tore up the chicken coop we kept out back. But a coyote’s just trying to make a living, to eat. A coyote couldn’t hide so well, appear so toothless showing his teeth.
You really could, I said to Wanda, trying to make it true. Think about Beth.
But Wanda wasn’t there, didn’t feel Beth’s hands clasping, hear her sudden cry. I was the one who sat with my brother’s girl, warming her fingers as they emptied her body. She was I-got-bigger-fish-to-fry-I-got-other-mouths-to-feed brave until the chafe of paper sheets and speculum. Her face drained to white and the dark rings that came under her eyes in that moment never went away.
It was February, frozen, waiting for death to flood from the skin. Sleet blew through the parking lot where I tried to shield her from the posters. Half-formed and bloody babies seemed to dance on their pieces of wood above the hedges covered with slush.
No license, borrowed car, I drove her home to Reba who sat locked and wailing in her playpen, snot dripping to her wormish lip.
Bethany said to me, You know I’d keep it if we could. With the first one you think you can.
I never told Denny about the abortion. Bad enough Reba was born while he was gone. Bad enough he couldn’t breathe anymore at night without a vent. The piercing wail of my brother’s stopped chest invaded my dreams, left me running and running to find him up in those woods, in the desert of Kuwait, always a figure retreating, blocking out part of the sun.
I did tell Wanda about Beth, though, because we were pinky-swear friends. We told everything. It was because of Bethany we made the pact: we were never gonna, never with the boys around here and never up in those woods. Only if they married us first, liked us for other reasons.
But the way Wanda put on her makeup the night it happened told me that it would happen, anyway, pact or no. We stood in the bathroom before the party, her glopping CoverGirl onto her face, a shade darker than her skin. Extra green liner and shadow. When she turned to look at me I saw that her life was over. In Jesse’s wake, there would be the others and soon she’d be the one twirling a phone cord around her finger, begging. Picking up boxes of powdered milk from the food pantry like our own moms had. I saw, too, that she had no choice.
We stood in the bathroom before the party, her glopping CoverGirl onto her face, a shade darker than her skin. Extra green liner and shadow. When she turned to look at me I saw that her life was over.
If Jesse hadn’t gotten to Wanda, everybody said later, she might have made it out.
I don’t think so. There was something in Wanda, that’s for certain. She was the only one in her family took regular classes at school, sat right next to me and endured the taunts of those Keatington girls.
Thing is, though, Wanda’s brother didn’t make it home.
Died doing a plow of Iraqi soldiers, Denny said. Burying hundreds of ‘em alive was Shane’s job over there. Never heard exactly, but bet he died on a run. Plenty guys did. Got swallowed up in their own trenches.
I wasn’t too sorry. If brothers were no less awful than any other boy sometimes, Shane was worst than most. At least we were as strong as our brothers, had been fighting them long as we could remember, could bite and tear our way to freedom. But Wanda’s dad kept hanging in the doorway of her room even after the war was over, six feet tall two-fifty. No one coming to stop it.
So she went up to those woods and I followed, found my hand in the hand of some boy whose name I can’t remember now.
I watched as Jesse worked his magic around the fire, got everybody onto shots of nasty Hot Damn. It was November. Time of bittersweet vines, their berries the only red still singing. Even the patches of blood in the grass dried to brown. Those woods were no good for us in deer season until well after dusk when our orange-vested fathers poked around with shotguns, pouring salt on the ground, trying to put something out of its misery. Wanda’s face shone as she disappeared into the El Camino with Jesse.
Those bent and gnarled young trees tangled in the guts of the car shuddered with its rocking, threw down their last clinging leaves.
The boy I was with put his hands up my shirt, fumbled under my bra. His cold fingers felt dead to me, like the innards of the deer dad and I’d butchered the day before.
Butchering was Denny’s job before Kuwait, but after, it was mine. I held the leg of the doe firm for dad to saw through, his fingers covered in blood, slippery. He sunk them in at the top of her belly to see how fat she was. He cursed. The small pointed bone at the meeting of the ribs, busted by bullet, rested at my toes. I picked it up, felt its sticky warmth that had been so near the beating heart.
I felt the bone in the pocket of my jeans, pressing up against my hip under the boy’s pressing. I shoved him away. Before he could reach out for me, cajole me to stay like they always did, I disappeared into those woods the way you could if they were part of you.
I wandered out to the missile pit where I found Marcy Walters sitting on the edge smoking a cigarette, plucking the cotton out of a milkweed, letting it float on the air away. Quiet out there by those pits where for years the government prepared for Russia to bomb us. Scars and concrete in the ground. Now the atomic rot had gone back into the earth that swallowed everything, just like it had gone into my brother.
Marcy was pretty quick and she probably knew why I was crying. She held me until I could breathe and offered me her smoke.
I know, I know, she said, soothing me. You try and try, but in the end, you can’t decide the story of someone else’s life.
I buried the piece of bone out there near the pit. I didn’t want my mark to be as obvious as the cross we found out by the highway that time, me and Denny, or the forget-me-not letters buried by girls with plastic kiddie barrettes to mark them. Plenty of those up there, half of them probably for Jesse. Bright yellow bows or purple birds hard and unrelenting in the black dirt. I dug in, marked the grave of the doe I’d claimed as mine with a simple stone, near a tree I loved and knew well. Some curve in the stone, some pattern, a root breaking from the earth just so—I was sure I would never forget, that the map inside of me was stronger than any I’d ever seen on paper.
That was the last night I spent up in those woods until after I’d left for school, scholarship all the way down to Ohio State. Guidance counselor set it up for me when I told her I wanted out. I spent the last two years of high school studying and watching Reba while Bethany worked at the Super Wal-Mart that went in up on the highway and sitting quietly with Denny, who couldn’t talk anymore, not even with his hands. Lou Gehrig’s, we knew by then, just like all the other guys got over in the gulf.
I came home for Christmas that first year away at school, mostly to see him.
I saw Wanda, too. The edges of those woods were white, thick black branches poking up through the snowcover. Wanda stood with me there at dusk, snow in her eyelashes. I couldn’t bring myself to go in.
I’m pregnant, she said. Just two months.
The baby wasn’t Jesse’s, she was sure, but the guy’s she ended up with after he’d moved on to the next girl.
Get rid of it, I said. You’ll ruin your life. Words like armor-piercing bullets covered with uranium Denny said came so hot and fast sand turns to glass when they hit.
Get rid of it, I said. You’ll ruin your life.
My love for Wanda turned her into something else. And being away turned me into someone else. I forgot how babies brought hope to a place like ours, right or wrong. I forgot how only birth and death could gather us together. I forgot the way everything dangerous eventually sealed over—the missile pits filled up with so much sand you couldn’t dig your way in, the old carpet we dragged up to those woods to make a fort covered with moss, and friendships mended by the pressure of space and just plain tiredness. Growing up in those trailers near those woods leaves you tired, even after you take off from there for good, when you only come back for weddings and funerals.
Beth finally got brave enough to pull the plug the spring I turned twenty-three. In front of the altar of St. Joe’s, under the plaster Christ hanging on his cross, they laid my brother out in his full dress uniform, collar pulled up to cover his neck. I could remember the first time he wore it, the way his muscles filled the sleeves when he reached down to hug me. But by the time he died, the jacket was baggy, had to be pinned behind him.
Jesse Walburn stood near my brother’s body with a terrible look on his face, deep lines cutting his forehead, a single streak of grey at his temple. He wasn’t even thirty. Still lean, long, loping as he walked down the aisle toward the door, his throat bobbing like he’d choke.
Marcy Walters left her kids and husband in back, came and sat right behind me when the priest started talking bullshit. She put her hand on my shoulder and kept it there until my muscles eased up.
Wanda was in back with her kids, too. She waited on the front step in the bright spring sun and hugged me. She felt smaller in my arms than I remembered, more solid. We ate egg salad and pork chops side by side in the rented hall afterwards, just like we did after we looked at her brother’s casket—except, that one was empty, no hands crossed over the heart.
At the end of the night, everybody went home except the ones who knew Denny up in those woods. Marcy, always on her game, matriarch of our ragtaggle tribe, put on an old Bruce Springsteen cassette and cranked it up and everybody started to dance.
This is what Denny would have wanted, Marcy said.
I watched as Jesse danced with girls who would have killed him five years back, before they were resigned to their fates, found other daddies for their babies or dropped them off at the church daycare.
He came over to Wanda, asked her to dance.
Sure, she said, grinning and handing me her plate.
Right, I thought, they might not go up into those woods anymore, but they live together in those trailers. They see each other at the Super Wal-Mart and they dig each other’s cars out of the snow. They know each other in a way no one will ever know me again.
Wanda laughed and smacked Jesse on the arm over something. They walked over to me together. He took my hand, pulled me in. I let him because I thought I’d fall down if he didn’t hold me up. In my mind, I could see him and Denny leaning against the kitchen counter, sipping off their beers, laughing. My brother’s head tipped back, neck long and smooth before they punctured it, before the metal clasp, the tube through which he ate.
Jesse took me to the dance floor. He bent down to hold me, his arms like a brief vise around my arms and shoulders. Wiry, nothing like Denny’s.
The night was over. The song was over. Denny was dead. It was time to let go and we both knew it. But I did not let go of Jesse. He looked down at me, looked right into my eyes.
So? he asked.
I was tired. I let him lead me to the door where America Johnson and Gracie Alvarado stood watching their kids dance together. Brother and sister.
Where you off to? Gracie said to us.
America just shook her head. Hopeless, her eyes seemed to say.
Wanda stared at me long and hard from across the room. I kept her eyes a few seconds, saw them flash a warning in the old language. I went anyway.
In the parking lot, a light rain fell. I got into Jesse’s truck and let him drive me over to those woods. I knew it was where he would go. And how I had craved it all that long time away. We parked his car on the trailer side, behind the pile of unused culverts that had been there so long no one remembered what they meant to drain. In the full moon they were gaping mouths rising from the ground.
I knew it was where he would go. And how I had craved it all that long time away.
Jesse and I went up, in. Soon as I felt the magic there I stripped off my coat, felt the familiar air. My skin prickled with relief, like I was a puzzle piece that finally found its way to the empty spot, my edges soothed by being held in somewhere for a time. Spring in those woods was wild, the new green in the moonlight and drizzle something thick as blood poured all over the night, all over Jesse Walburn as he stood next to that El Camino.
This is what it would have been like, I told myself.
But it wasn’t. I wasn’t fourteen, fifteen. I was a woman and I knew how to turn my body toward him, relax the small of my back to let him enter. Inside of me he was dull, thudding, an old score settled passionless for everybody, our clothes tangled around our ankles, the ridges of metal pushed into my back. I was cold. There was no magic when he came, no agony of something lost, just Jesse, who was nothing more than a guy from my hometown who didn’t know how to do it any better than this, finishing the woods of my girlhood, those woods I’d already lost buried inside my chest so it felt like I would cry, choke up wet branches, leaves, a pair of girl’s boots.
We lay for a few minutes, wordless. Then I pulled my jeans back up. I slipped out of the El Camino and began to walk away.
Hey, wait up, he said.
See you around, I said. I needed to look for what I’d buried, touch myself at fifteen.
In the dark I moved from tree to tree, seemingly guided by the moon itself. Jesse held out his lighter so I could examine the bark of a particular tree. I touched stone after stone. But I didn’t remember exactly. Nothing was really familiar. It only seemed I knew those woods. I felt something haunting my chest, something breaking.
You need a hand? Jesse said, following me as I thrashed up toward the highway. He was polite, worried, ruined for me.
All along I dreamt of other places, didn’t want to stay in those trailers, but in that moment, groping for what I already knew was lost, just another dead thing under a rock, I realized that getting out really was an accident. Luck, if such a thing exists. It could have gone either way. Of course, I was already safe, so it was easy to admit.
In the morning, Wanda came over with the kids, brought me a mug of coffee. She didn’t say a thing about it. She was the wise one that morning and I was the stupid girl. We sat on the porch, watching the kids run through the puddles that had formed in the grass, water coming down from those trees in the night. She stroked my hair, the way we had always grieved together, piled into the El Camino with her sister, old magazines and licorice sticks, and always a hand tangled or braiding, saying, You can endure. You can. You will make it through.
How’s life? I asked. It was all I could think to say.
It’s decent, she said. She tapped two cigarettes out of her pack and offered me one, cupping her hand around mine to light it.
Our eyes talked in the old way, bleeding and accepting apologies in less time than it took to blow clouds of smoke in the air, bite down and clap as Wanda’s oldest son, the one I tried to erase, held out his arms to fly.
Josie Sigler’s poetry has appeared in Poet Lore, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Harpur Palate and others. Her fiction has been published in Water~Stone, Copper Nickel, and Silk Road. Her chapbook, Calamity, was published by Proem Press. Her book of poems, living must bury, was published by Fence Books. She writes a lot about the several stranded Midwestern towns in which she grew, the cities that came after, and the Maine island she calls home.
About “El Camino”: Last autumn my brother and I took a walk in the woods near one of the houses we lived in growing up. We found a piece of carpet we’d dragged from the dump to turn our secret place into more of a home. Grass and moss had grown around the carpet so it was barely recognizable, but we both knew instantly what it was. In writing “El Camino,” I was trying to capture that moment of recognition, of history rushing up on you and making your skin ache. This story is also a love letter for all the girls I knew back home who never got the chance to dream themselves into being.