Rowing Alone

by Amanda Koester

 

Their green leaves reached out of the soil like fish coming up for air in the moss-covered river. I kept those pictures taped up along the wall next to the bed, imagining what the seedlings would look like one day to the next. They grow so fast this time of year. Voices whispered from up the hall. The officer left the TV on again while he took a phone call and I couldn’t tell which was him talking and which was the talk show. Across the hall, another set of bars where Dot left her denim over-shirt on the bed; her long, yellow wig hanging on the wall hook. They let her sleep in the cell last night after she won them over in a game of Indian gut. She didn’t know how to play, but she laughed when she did poorly and grabbed the officer’s arm, so she won him pretty fast. Now, Dot, clipped my nails. She’d noticed she was biting hers more and figured mine had to be down to the bit. According to the newspapers, I, Elma Theroux, was being charged with manslaughter.

“I’ll tell any lie I can to get you back out in the sun,” she smiled and filed the next fingernail. The dirt beneath them was as thick as the bone and I felt ashamed to have her working around it. “You tan so nice,” Dot said.

“Oh that’s okay, there’s nothing too bad here,” I said.

“But you deserve to be out there! You didn’t do nothing wrong.” Dot spoke with fire in her throat, like she’d memorized all her lines from gospel readings. “Hell, I’ve done worse just by milking a goat and drinking the milk raw.”

“How’s the weather?”

“It’s been gloomy since you got in here, that’s for sure.” She dropped my hand and went over to her purse on the bed. She carried a flashy pink purse with three large plastic crystals across the center. She looked like a Barbie doll with that purse. “Weather’s got people acting crazy, like a full moon or something. I sang at the bar last night and four bottles hit the chicken wire stretched across the stage before my third song.” She looked out the window. “I think your case has the whole town a little wound up. I brought you the papers from this week. They got the weather in there and everything.”

The papers smelled of allspice and day lilies. “Elma Theroux, The Real Lennie Milton,” I read out loud, “Big Elma Bears All.” I looked up at Dot. There was my name, right there on the front page under the weather, sixty-five degrees.

“Oh, you’re not that big. I’d like to be so tough. I could barely sleep in here last night.” She took the papers from my hand, threw them on the bed, and returned to my nails where she picked at the yellowed callus next to my thumbnail.

I was born six pounds seven ounces, but by the eighth grade I’d learned I wasn’t always going to be small. The men at my father’s work called me a “heifer” and I liked that, I liked people saying I was strong and like a man, thought that made me a better person. I refused to wear dresses, or makeup, and tried to buy shirts that fit from the men’s rack. I realized I didn’t like to dance in high school, didn’t want to go to all those functions, and eventually I dropped out to work as a mechanic in town where I first met Dot and started earning that callus from bracing it on wrenches. But I lost that job when I killed Buddy.

“Looks like the papers know more about me than I do.”

“What does that stuff even mean anyway?”, Dot said. She wiped her hand in the air, telling me to toss it from my thoughts. Other people getting involved seemed to be the way of murder trials, even when the story was between family.

Buddy was my brother and after he came back from the war he was on medications to keep him with only one personality. When he first came back we’d find him watching a blank TV, or dancing vigorously to songs in the living room, really throwing things and swinging his hips like he meant to start a motor and take off, or we’d find him trying to start the car with the garage door down. Ma sent him to a home, but once she died he came back to live with me. I woke up to him beating on me about a week ago, one hand shaped to my neck, one hand bloody from pounding my nose, so I shot him twice with the gun beneath my pillow. He sat down on the bed next to me for a while, and then he just lay down and went to sleep. That was the first time I saw him sleep in about a year.

It occurred to me men were always waiting for someone to tell them what to do, even if they wouldn’t admit it. They can stand on their own all throughout life, but the minute a good woman walks by, they’d do just about anything she’d say. Buddy couldn’t listen in the state he was in, but I think he was asking me to help him get out of his body and up to Ma and Dad.

At the shop, Dot worked the desk in front. The whole office was made of windows circling around Dot’s desk. People would come in, wipe their shoes on the rubber mat inside the door, and go over to Dot to sign in or pay up. Most of the time, the mechanics would find a few other problems, and people would get mad they had to pay so much, but Dot could calm them down. The guys loved her. She was the sort of woman who they’d been waiting for from what I could see. We had a guy who’d beat his engine with bats and cut his own brakes just to sit in the room with Dot and talk to her or watch the mounted TV with her for a few hours. I once watched him push his car down the street with his body half-in the driver’s side door. His ankles were about a foot behind him he was pushing so hard after he poured water in the oil tank just to see Dot.

I was proud to have her as my character witness, she could find the bright side of any cut or bruise.

“I bet if Carl sees you at the trial looking this nice he’ll give you your job back as soon as it’s all over.”

“I hope so. I have my seedlings to check on.”

The only thing I can remember spending my own money on in the past eight years other than Buddy’s medicine, food, and a few glasses of tea, was my little greenhouse. I never even bought a seed for it. I used my own fruit, grew the seeds and everything. A few pots along the top shelves had mystery seedlings growing up inside of them, droppings of whatever the birds wanted to leave for me. Dot had been watching them since I’d been locked up. From the pictures, not one leaf turned brown.

“I’ll bring you more pictures of them this week. You can hang them on the wall with the others. You have a poppy plant coming up soon. You’ll be out to see it bloom, I bet.” I looked at the window sill and wondered how many plants I could sit there behind the bars, how big they’d get in that sunlight by the time I could pack them up and head home. Dot tapped the top of my hand twice to tell me she was done, clean and even. “Elma, I know we’re good friends and you said you trust me, but I think you should take this and look at it tonight before bed.” She handed me a fat envelope from her purse, it smelled like her, and I got another wind of her scent as she put her purse over her shoulder. “I have to lock up the shop tonight and then get some sleep. I’ll check your plants before the trial and how about we eat at Dene’s tomorrow night? We can get pancakes and burgers or burgers with pancakes on top, anything you want.”

When she left, I opened the envelope where she’d typed out her script for tomorrow, what she wanted to say at the trial. I tore the papers and sat them on the window ledge. It was one of those nights when the sun set as a wide sheet of clouds rose from the ground, and a black line drew itself on the horizon. I watched it devour the highway outside the window. Night clouds. The hawks watched the traffic with me until it was finally dark. Then the lights drove by. I wasn’t looking forward to this trial. I lay in bed and my whole body began to shake as I tried to recite some of the stories Dot had told me in the past.

 

At trial, I sat behind a table nicer than any in my house and turned around to see Dot picking at her nails a few seats behind me. When they called her name, she rose and clicked all the way up to the podium in heels six inches high and bright yellow. She’d painted her lips bright red just like she said she would. “So they hear me loud and clear and don’t miss one word of what I’m saying,” she’d said.

We were sitting in that big room, farther apart than we’d ever sat in the years I’d known her. If we were ever in a room together, we were sitting side by side and she would hold my hand. But now she was all the way across the tile floor, reminiscing about our time together. Eight years, best friends she called us, shared a car, made dinners, worked at Carl’s Repair, like a sister, I bought her first glass of wine, went on walks, Dot lived with me for a few months while her boyfriend was out looking for her, I just about saved her soul as well as her life, she said.

“Elma Theroux took me duck hunting a year ago,” she said. “Elma borrowed a boat from one of the men from the shop and she drove us out onto Horseshoe Lake in June. She took the boat off the car by herself, carried it into the water, and let me get in before she pushed off. Her boot was soaked from stepping in the water for me, and she ended up with blisters, but she smiled that whole day in her wet sock.

“Elma handed me her Ma’s rifle. My hands were shaking so bad I could barely hold it,” she started giggling, “And that made me shake even more, nervous I might shoot my hair off.

“The whole trip had started off as a joke. I’d got Elma laughing really hard one day at work, she was laughing so hard she had to put her head down on my desk and I had to give her a tissue to catch her tears. Somehow it’d come out that I was afraid of ducks, mallards, anything. I’d been told that ducks killed my brother. So, God, I hated ducks back then, I was sure they could just eat you alive in a few bites; afraid they’d swarm me if I even got on the lake, but Elma said I had to get out to Horseshoe Lake, and maybe even clip off a few to teach me who was in charge. She let me stop at a liquor store on the way out of town and buy myself a beer. I’d never had a beer, but I thought hunting on a lake, you needed a beer for that, and ducks, well I’d need a beer for that,” She laughed and smiled at the judge.

“Out on the water, it was the most peaceful I have ever felt in my life. It was just Elma and me, just floating along, letting time pass. We’d see a leaf float by from shore and Elma would tell me what plant it was from, wild celery or violets. She’d start looking around to see if we were close enough for her to pick some from the beach.

“Once nature got used to us, the ducks came back into the lake, the water settled down, and we were all together out there just having a nice day. Those ducks didn’t even look at us, didn’t charge us or anything other than peck at the wild flowers,” she giggled again and when her voice squeaked the entire room chuckled into their shoulders. “Well, my father took my brother duck hunting when I was about seven years old. They rowed out to the center of the lake; it was a still and sunny day, I know because that’s the only day my dad thought he could shoot a flying object. He was aimed at a good duck that nested around the lake when something startled all of the ducks out of the water and up into the sky. He followed the duck with his gun; swinging upwards in a curve and turning his body all the way around, and he fired. He fired the gun right into my brother’s head as he stood behind him. But it was Elma who told me that part of the story out on the lake. My momma had told me a duck did it and I believed it as much as any seven-year-old would. Elma remembered it from the papers; she was very sweet and tender when she told me the story. I started to cry. She handed me my beer and I took my first few sips.

“She rowed to shore and I kept picturing my daddy rowing the boat all the way from the center of the lake with Mick’s dead body laying by his boots. He must have had blood on his shirt, his hands, his cheeks. How do you bring someone home like that? How’d he get Mick home? I got quiet and spent the ride home silent, staring out the window, thinking about our boat in the trailer behind the car while Elma held my hand.

“We never fired a gun that day. I hated guns, thought they were just polishable members men liked to sling around, and Elma had never fired a gun until Buddy came at her. Elma saved me with that big gentle thing inside of her, that little quality that feels so big when you know her. Something lush and Midwestern. You don’t let a crazy man live with you unless you have heart. That’s the truth.” She looked at me directly and when she smiled, I’d never seen teeth so white or big.

 

They found me not guilty of manslaughter due to my self-defense. I thanked Dot for saving me.

 

The grackle woke me up and left Dot asleep under the sheets and I noticed a bloodstain of Buddy’s on the floor I must have missed. It felt strange to have a piece of somebody in the room, but know they weren’t even on the earth anymore.

A couple hours later, Dot woke up to see Roland Parks and me wrapping blue-tape around the greenhouse. She thought maybe the glass broke overnight and I was making a quick fix. There was nothing wrong with the greenhouse. I was just ready to go, with enough cash in my back pocket to buy a small house and half a plot of land, but she couldn’t see it and when I asked her if she wanted to take a spin around the dirt roads in my new pick-up, hit a few potholes, she didn’t understand. She thought I was just trying to get my head right now that I was back in the sun. I told her I was heading to Indiana and she stepped nervously forward with my bed quilt still over her head. I finished wrapping the windows as Dot, her feet bare and wet from the grass, cupped her hands over the windowpanes to look at a statue of Elvis she placed in the ivy so they’d have something to climb.

“Alright, now lets get this in the bed of my new pick-up,” I said.

Dot giggled as if it was an impossible joke, to lift the house into a truck, and Roland looked at her to see if I was being honest.

“I’m not helping.” Roland said, “The greenhouse will shatter if a rock from the road kicks up and nicks it, it’ll explode all over the highway—if you make it that far—and it’ll send a line of cars to the hospital. You get someone else to help you.”

“Roland, you signed the papers for my house, and on those papers it said you would help me move this thing off the property. If you don’t help, the sale isn’t final.” I watched him shake his head. “I don’t plan on going fast before the highway and I’ll ride the shoulder.”

He said, “I can’t help you do something that dangerous,” and gave me a look like I was born a screwball. I could see the seedlings inside leaning toward the sun in the East and hoped by night they’d be leaning west from the pick-up bed. “It’s going to take more people.” He said, “It’ll be an hour before everyone can get to the house.”

“I don’t mind. I’ll just go out and get the rest of what I need to go, Dot will come with and I’ll buy her a thank you gift for getting me this far. We can take the truck and scope out any pot holes to dodge later.”

He told me there are no thank you gifts big enough for a woman that cured murder. But I told him I’m a big fan of owing people my time.

 

As we drove into town, Dot decided she’d quit the shop when I told her they wouldn’t hire me back. “I sold my house, the property was worth a handful, and I sold the car. I used the money to buy the truck.” Dot could sense I was serious about leaving town and she said she wanted to go with wherever I go, but girls like Dot and me are rarely put together. Dot could fit in small places, or the crook of a man’s arm, the top of a podium. She’s smart and people listen to her.

“I tried to get you a job in Indiana, but you’d end up with a broken wrist or ankle coming out there.” I placed my thumb and pointer around her wrist like a watch as we drove down the road. “Can I buy you a new wig?”

She was picking her nails, biting on the cuticles before she said, “Can I tell you a true story, Elma?”

“Go ahead.”

 

Last I saw Dot I left her at the bus station in Omaha Nebraska a week later, having hit the road later than planned. She’d gotten a job in California working with a politician and telling stories, and I drove to Indiana to work the mills with my little greenhouse riding in the bed of the truck. I’d never been a fan of desolation or how things appear and disappear. The way something new that I pictured in bed the night before can look completely different when I arrive. I didn’t like the Indiana border, the pale yellows of the land and the shapeless terrain, but I drove in because I had a life to keep living while I was alive and nothing else to do.

 

Amanda Koester

Rowing Alone by Amanda Koester first appeared in Issue 2 of Bare Fiction Magazine (April 2014).

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