Two hours into the bonfire, I was back in Dina’s uncle’s living room for the dog beds. The animal mounts and tobacco signs against the wood paneling appeared yellowed, hazed, as if Jack Christiansen was still smoking in his chair. The house might always smell like wet cigarette smoke. I piled the dog beds on each other—one an old papasan chair’s cushion—stacked two cracked TV trays on top, and added a grape vine wreath, bow faded from purple to Pepto pink.
At the doorway I stopped at the kingfisher mount. Dina had said, “Poor bird looks like it’s choking.” She’d swept her curtain of black hair behind her, her weirdly short bangs highlighting her inky eyes—both so dark compared to all the Scandinavians in Spruce Creek.
I thought Dina would be gone by now. Thought I’d be back to spending nights at Park Tavern with Harry and Sven, going home to my second floor one-bedroom, halfway between the Tavern and Bloom’s Hardware, listening to the stand up radiator as I tried to fall asleep.
When I pried the kingfisher from the wall, one of its eyes skittered across the wood floor, stopping against tan shag. Twenty years of dust and nicotine coated the bird’s feather—a kind of amber that instead of insects trapped whole chairs, tables, appliances.
I picked up the eyeball, and dragged the dog bed pile of crap, not wanting any part of Dina’s Uncle Jack near me. The smell of urine slunk off the beds.
Outside, I breathed snowmelt and bonfire. Across from the house, the barn and Quonset hut slumped. Down the hill, on the old pig barn’s concrete pad in a gulley, the fire blazed. Beyond that, the tree line marked the acreage Jack hadn’t sold off, small but something.
Dina’s thin legs and my aunt Ann’s Carhartt jacket were silhouetted by flames. Dina applied lip balm from her tin that looked like two bottle caps stuck together. The balm smelled like wintergreen and gave her lips a hazy shine like fog through a windshield on a spring night.
Dina Brown’s not from Spruce Creek, Minnesota, and that makes us seem alike, even though I’ve always lived in Creek. Aunt Ann wanted me to see things, go to college. Aunt Muriel, Mom’s other sister, couldn’t see why. The U of M online class I took senior year—multivariable calculus and vector analysis—was hard and crazy, but not practical, and therefore nothing in Spruce Creek.I already knew way more math than I could use at the hardware store, and I wouldn’t get to use it at the farmhouse since Bill and Brian were the heirs to Aunt Muriel’s farm. Farm life has taught me you only want to be a farmer if you’re not. Still I watch futures, trading volumes, figure application rates. Gives a body something to think on while sorting nails.
When Dina entered Bloom’s Hardware two weeks ago, Buck and I looked at her. When Buck turned back to me, he raised his eyebrows and wandered to the paint aisle, not finishing his story about beavers busting up his crick.
I knew right off Dina was from somewhere else: when she asked for a gas can, it sounded like geyas ceyan. She read my name tag and said, “Thanks, Ed,” her words ricocheting through me.
In the shoplifting mirror, Buck crossed to fasteners, head canted, listening.
The guys have always given me shit for being good with the ladies, nicknaming me Old Yeller because I’m a stray, which is the only thing they think I could have on them. They say I milk the orphan thing, get the honeys to feel sorry for me.
The guys don’t know I never bring up my parents. No one wants to hear a sob story. Aunt Muriel’s right about that.
Of course I told Dina that first day in aisle three.
By the gas cans, I asked, “Are you broken down?”
She, too, must have been aware Buck was listening an aisle over, his pawing through screws and bolts stopped. She leaned in and said, “I am broken down,” paused and added, “and worn out.”
I cocked my head, and the HVAC system rattled before blowing its tinny heat. The noise gave us privacy Buck wouldn’t.
“But the gas is for the Fairchild.”
I could smell her shampoo, maybe coconut, as she moved a chunk of sleek hair behind her. I’d never heard of a Fairchild. Some new car out east I guessed. “Five gallon good?”
“Don’t need anything that big. Got something smaller?”
Working in a hardware store, there’s no end to sexual innuendo. But normally the innuendos are with the likes of Buck.
She laughed. “Bet that’s a request you get all the time,” she said and gave me a soft fist bump on the shoulder.
“You’re not from here,” I said.
“What gave it away?”
“Just about every damn thing.” I added, “Not many girls come in for a gas can for their car.”
“Not a car. An airplane.”
I raised my forehead in the look I’d been cultivating in the mirror. Enough girls had said I looked like James Dean that I’d Googled him. It had become an effective tool. Except on Jen, who screwed around with a guy from Black Den last year when we were still together. Hadn’t been with a girl since.
“It’s a radio controlled plane my uncle had in the basement. It’s epic. We’re sorting his stuff to sell the house. He died. His place is on Woods End.”
“Your uncle was Henry Anderson?”
She shook her head and said, “Uncle Jack. He died a couple months ago. Jack Christiansen?” she offered.
In my mind I surveyed Woods End, mailboxes and driveways, unable to locate Jack Christiansen.
“He’s got tobacco tins filled with hinges and junk, so he probably made do. I didn’t really know him.” She blushed, and at the time, I took it for embarrassment, though now I know better. Dina never blushes, and she knew Jack’s kind all too well.
She said, “I’m Dina. As in ‘Dina won’t you blow your horn.’” Which is a song I never heard until she sang it. She asked, “Didn’t your parents sing it to you?”
I told her about the car accident when I was six. She didn’t do that thing people do if they don’t know my past—look away and say sorry, the dumbest thing since it’s no one’s fault but Dad’s. Instead, Dina looked at me for a long moment and touched my shirt against the inside of my elbow as if feeling for a pulse. She said nothing until her lips pulled into a shy smile and then mine did too.
At the register, she paid and asked, “Maybe you want to come flying with me at lunch?”
“I’m meeting my aunt for lunch, but maybe when I get off work?”
“No pressure. I can see you have a lot going on here.” She nodded toward the end of the aisle, and there was Buck.
I asked, “You want to meet her? She’d like you.”
Approaching the fire, I could smell metal trying to burn. Aunt Ann said, “The hunter returns yet.” Then she asked, “Jack had a dog?”
Dina said, “He had dog hair and dog piss. He may or may not have had a dog.”
When I got to the fire, I held the kingfisher up and pinched the bird’s eye between thumb and forefinger. “Want to do the honors with the one-eyed bandit?”
“Yes, please.” Dina held out her hand for both pieces of the kingfisher and underhanded the bird to the fire. The feathers caught and flamed to the shafts. She tossed the eye in.
Aunt Ann said, “Who needs sparklers?” She handed out beers from the case in the snow.
We’d be at it for hours, not a thing salvageable for the church or senior center, everything coated in nicotine, and the few pieces of wood furniture that could be peeled of the tar, too broken or cigarette or bottle scarred. I couldn’t imagine wrecking everything I owned.
I kicked the dog beds. “Ready?” I asked.
I frisbeed the beds, and they thumped onto the fire. There was no sound, then smoking, then a woosh of flames, and the three of us jumped back.
“For fuck’s sake,” yelled Ann and pointed to the base of the fire. There, in all directions, little flames ran from the blaze. It took a second to register the scene.
Dina yelled, “Mice!”
Twenty plus mice, on fire or smoking, ran from the dog beds, scattering to the snow, most burrowing underneath. Two died quickly in black singed piles on the grey slush by the fire.
Dina bit her fogged lip, and my throat closed. “I’m sorry,” I said. I didn’t want to be like her other men. “Why didn’t they escape when I moved the beds?”
Ann bent down, scooped up snow, and held it to us. “Look,” she said. “He’s fine.” In her hand, snow melting, a mouse: beady eyes bright and livid. I smelled singed hair and Dina’s wintergreen. Ann set the mouse down, and he scurried on top of the snow, then burrowed again. She said, “Who needs sparklers.”
That first day I met Dina, we walked from the hardware store to Taylor’s for lunch. Ashy ice banks muffled the noise of a few passing cars, and I was grateful for the snow, a wall to keep others from Dina. Of course that changed when we walked into Taylor’s and Mr. Hendrickson waved, Billy gave a smeared smile, and Kristen blushed when I nodded at her sitting across from her mom. I guessed she knew about Jen, too. Dina and I sat by the window sipping pop and waiting for Ann. I couldn’t think what to say to such a dark haired woman. “There she is,” I said nodding out the window.
“Your aunt drives a Wrangler?”
“She named it Sir Wildgin.”
“Aunt Ann does stuff like that.”
We watched her walk in, her pear shape nearly the same as every other middle-aged woman in Taylor’s, but her smile, wide and almost laughing, not a thing like anyone else except Mom. With her Carhartt unzippered and her plastic nametag bouncing against her sweater, Ann opened her mouth and eyes in mock surprise, our greeting from when I was a kid, then cocked her head at Dina.
It wasn’t that we knew everyone in Spruce Creek personally, but we’d worked hard to at least recognize people because they knew of me. Forever you’re the kid whose parents died. Or the kid who Muriel and Don took in. The one Stan gave a job to. So you work to protect yourself, work to not be who they want you to be. Sad. A burden. Typecast.
Ann smelled like pipe smoke, which meant she was taking care of Mr. Freelander on 147th. Cataracts, bad, and ALS, not too rough yet. She read to him from National Geographic, and they did crosswords. I hugged her and introduced her to Dina.
“You knew Jack Christiansen?” I asked when Aunt Ann said she did.
“He’s the one who took me to the rodeo over in Winner,” she said looking at me.
“Oh,” I said and the aftertaste of Coke taste went hard and bitter.
I tried to think of something to say, but Violet took our order, and then Dina asked Ann about her nametag, which led to Ann telling us about putting a square of toilet paper over Mr. Freelander’s bathtub drain so she could tell if he showered. After our sandwiches came, Ann asked Dina about living on different bases.
“They’re all the same. The original strip mall. Concrete and cheap goods.” Dina said her younger brother was in community college, younger sister a hairdresser in South Carolina, so they didn’t make last year’s move to Fort Drum.
“Pardon me but,” said Ann, and I froze, waiting for the bombshell, but she only said, “you seem old to be living and traveling with your parents yet.”
Dina moved her hair over her shoulder and said, “I like to see new places.” It sounded like a question. She ticked salt into her hand from the shaker. She licked her finger, dipped it in the salt, put it in her mouth, and looked at me and Ann. “I’m worried about leaving Mom. Dad can be difficult.”
Ann leaned over her Reuben and said, “It seems the Christiansen brothers are cut from the same cloth.” My bite of burger turned to stones. “Your uncle threw a Bomb Pop at me when I said I wouldn’t sleep with him after the rodeo. If we weren’t in public, I think he would have hit me. Is that the kind of difficult you mean?”
Dina looked at Ann and said, “Exactly.”
I wanted out of there. I coughed and the two of them looked at me.
Ann asked, “Has he gone after you?”
“Never. And never laid a hand on my younger brother or sister either.”
“Are you defending him?”
“I’m answering your next question.”
“Is your mother ready to leave?”
“She’s closer than ever.”
“But not ready.”
“No,” she said, reaching again for the salt shaker, then asking Ann more about work. Dina toggled her grief like the experts said to: flipping it on its belly to show its vulnerability, then snapping it right back.
Before I went back to work and paid the bill, my week to do so, Dina had asked Ann to join us for the Fairchild flying later that afternoon.
By the fire, I watched Aunt Ann’s profile walking the ridge toward the stucco house. In the dark, it didn’t look like such a shithole. The clean kitchen windows threw white light. I could see a person, a couple, might make a go of it here, just enough land left to raise some good food, a few chickens, a decent deer stand. I wondered if Jack’s Farmall H still ran.
Dina said, “So the truth is my parents are giving me the house. My brother and sister, too, but they won’t come here.”
I pitched my eyes to her. This was the third burning party. The first, for the bedroom, was the night after we flew the plane, then, a week later the second for the kitchen. This burn was supposed to be for the living room only, but Dina said if we didn’t start the basement, we’d never finish. Though this was our fourth time at the house, Aunt Ann and I hadn’t met her parents. I’d envisioned knocking out her father, but I didn’t know if I could do it. I’d never fought anyone but my cousins.
Dina’s parents were staying in the motel in Black Den, but Dina had piled a bunch of blankets on the cleaned out bedroom’s floor and slept there. Just walking by those blankets to and from the bathroom gave me a stiffy.
“You’re staying?” I asked.
“My parents say it’s the best thing for me.”
She nodded, poked at the fire, and said, “Got to evict the spirits.” Sparks popped when a driftwood lamp fell against the coals. “I want to hate him. But it’s hard to hate a man that gives you a new start. I hate the memory of him.”
“What are you going to do for work?” In Spruce Creek, a job was the only kind of inheritance there was.
She shrugged. “The house will keep me busy for a while. It’s been paid off forever. His truck is mine, too. A piece of shit, but I won’t have a lot of expenses. Maybe a girl could get a job at the diner.”
“Jobs are tight around here.”
She skipped her eyes between mine. “You telling me to leave?” She pulled out her lip balm, opened it, and dipped her pinky finger into the tin.
“No. There just isn’t a lot of work here. There’s not a lot of anything here. I didn’t—”
“—I don’t play games. So if you’re freaked, you should go.” She smoothed the gloss over her lips, wintergreen competing with smoke.
“That’s not what I meant.” Is this what Aunt Ann had felt? Stay for me, but go for you. “Look, you won’t get a job at Taylor’s. Violet who served us that first day? She’s sick, cancer. She’s worked there since she was fifteen. Her daughter will get her job.” Dina listened. Flames reflected in her eyes, so dark they looked black.
I said, “If I wanted to play games, I’d tell you I’d get you work at the hardware, but I only got that job because my parents were dead and Stan, the owner, remembers my dad buying a new ice scraper every year.”
More than once as we burned Dina’s uncle’s things, I’d wondered who burnt up my parent’s stuff, where all those ice scrapers went, and why I only had one small box of mementos, and that because of Aunt Ann.
Dina poked at a flaming cardboard box filled with rags.
I said, “This isn’t like other places. The empty building next to Taylor’s? That was a drugstore. We’re too small now for a drugstore, hardware, and market.” I jabbed at a stack of smoldering hunting magazines. “You might think it’s quaint here, but you won’t feel that way when everyone’s talking about you, making up stories for your life.”
She asked, “Are we still talking about me?”
Aunt Ann hollered from the top of the hill that she needed help. I headed up the hill, grabbed a chair cushion, beaver skull, and an end table, and followed her to the fire.
Dina filled Ann in, and I hoped Ann could make it clear jobs were tough and I wasn’t being a dick. But they didn’t talk about the practical stuff.
Dina said, “Dad wants to get rid of me.” She tossed in a small pillow, and the fabric smoked. “I shouldn’t accept it. But I’m tired. It’s been…” She started again, “I could justify it and say it will give Mom a place to come when she’s ready.”
Flames ate pillow edges. Dina said, “Once Uncle Jack told Dad I was too big for my britches because I wouldn’t go for a tractor ride. Dad made me go. I refused to sit on Jack’s lap that time, but he rubbed his arm against mine, his prickly hair and sweat.” Her jaw bone knotted at the edge of her hair.
“Son of a butt licking whore,” said Ann.
The smoke choked. Ann always got people to say too much. I said, “Going for more combustibles,” and neither of them acknowledged me, Ann standing close to Dina as if they were sisters.
That first afternoon I met Dina, we three stood on the hill by Uncle Jack’s house. The setting sun reflected off melted and refrozen snow so the fields looked shellacked.
The bold, primary colored Fairchild had a wingspan as tall as me. I bent to pick it up and tripped over myself when it was so light. Balsa wood, fiberglass. I extended both arms and held it in front of me, recalibrating what I knew about big, bold objects.
I’d checked the internet to see what type of glow plug the plane might need and hoped the Fairchild had the two-stroke engine. The girls cheered when I replaced the plug and the plane finally coughed to life. The plane’s hot machine smell reminded me of the train Dad set up around the Christmas tree.
Then, I didn’t know how different the plane was from everything else in the house. The decals were placed perfectly, construction impeccable. Then, I was excited to see what else the house held, what stories would be unraveled.
The veneered snow made a perfect runway, and the plane lifted. For a minute, maybe two, Dina flew it across the setting sun. We couldn’t tear our eyes from the hulking plane, a thing too mighty and too robust to fly. I wanted to try it, but she handed the remote control to Ann.
Aunt Ann took the Fairchild way up, much higher than Dina had, too high. “Aunt Ann,” I said, but neither woman responded. I ripped my eyes from the plane to glance at them: Dina, hands pocketed in red jacket, broad smile cleaving her face, and Ann, flushed, rapid breathing visible in the lift of her shoulders through her coat. I darted my eyes back to the plane. Up it went, easier to follow out of the sun, but becoming smaller and smaller until Dina yelled, “Do it!”
And as if they’d planned it, as if they’d spent the entire afternoon after I left Taylor’s talking about it, Ann drove the plane, screamed it toward the ground, and even after the noise of the crash, after the shards of wings and tail skittered across iced snow, I waited for it to rise again, couldn’t believe a thing so bold and imposing was destroyed. And then—the infectious laughter of the women, their eyes glinting, their laughter violent and reverberating off the varnished snow.
When the fire died down, Ann said, “You could have left long ago. Your brother and sister did.”
Dina’s dark hair had tangled itself in one of her earrings. I wanted to fix it for her.
With an old broom Dina smacked at the leg of a half burnt chair, and it broke in two with a dull hush, followed by a quick burst of sparks. “I didn’t belong in New York.”
Ann said, “I don’t belong in Minnesota.”
I always thought I felt homeless because of my dead parents. I asked, “Where do you belong?”
Aunt Ann shrugged, then asked, “Beers?” She flipped her can to the fire and grabbed a new round. Handing out the cans, she ignored my question and said to Dina, “That’s an excuse. Just like mine.”
Dina sipped. She said, “My grandfather, Dad and Uncle Jack’s dad, beat them with the buckle end of a belt. Sometimes across the head. Sometimes he burned them with cigarettes.” She cleared her throat. “I made some bad decisions.” She shoved a cracked wooden bowl into the fire. “Some epically poor decisions, including sleeping with my dad’s friend. Dad found out. I never wanted to disappoint my parents. Even Dad, which I know is stupid.”
Dina smacked the fire and said, “I forgot!” and scrambled toward the Quonset hut. Ann and I hadn’t been in there yet. I could only imagine the crap we’d burn that night.
Aunt Ann tossed a ripped jacket onto the fire and said, “You like her.”
“So do you.”
“True.” Smoke huffed from the jacket’s pockets. “She needs time, Ed.”
“No, you don’t. And even then, she might—”
“—I know, Aunt Ann.”
Ann sipped her beer and said, “It was easier when you needed help with your homework.”
We couldn’t see Dina, but we could hear her crunching through the snow toward us.
“I don’t need help now,” I said.
Ann said, “Sure, toots.”
“Carnage, anyone?” asked Dina as she approached with the Fairchild’s remnants. Even shredded, the plane looked regal, it’s vibrant yellows, blues, and reds clean and right compared to everything else we’d been burning: holed bedding, moldy folders, rinds of furniture.
Dina turned to Ann and asked, “Want to share the honor?”
Ann said, “All yours.”
Dina nearly stepped into the fire, threw her arms up, and plane bits tumbled and flamed almost before they landed, as if built to burn.
Aunt Ann was the one who had spent her whole life single, going on bad dates until she said she was done, then never dating again. Eight years of movies, dinners, tractor pulls, everything—alone. A long time not to be with anyone, even for a drink.
The Fairchild’s tail fins charred, the stars on the wings, gone. I’d never found the propeller, though it had been there for the flight. Only the little man in the cockpit could still be seen, his helmet strapped, goggles tight. The seat behind him empty. Had there been a copilot?
I remember Aunt Ann picking me up in her orange Pinto she called Casanova and driving to find frogs or go fishing or hunt snakes. Once, in spring, when the night had been hard cold, the ice at Wolf’s Pond had refrozen clear, and we threw rocks to see who could bust the ice first. A dark ghost moved under the water, and we kneeled, put our jeans right in the ice-crystaled mud. It was a beaver, a dark ghosted pelt soundlessly moving under the ice, gliding, and I wanted to grab through the ice and hold him, so sleek and tremendous. But Ann said it was good he was wild and free, that we can’t have everything we want.
I think Mom and Dad would have chosen Ann. But maybe it was good I hadn’t lived with her. All those quibbles about who was supposed to do dishes, about how late was too late to come home, about being grateful for generosity extended—it might have changed things between us.
When I kissed Mom the last time, she had sweat on her lip because of the contractions, so she tasted salty instead of minty or sweet. Mom and I used to eat chocolate covered peanuts that we made together. One at a time. Sweetness spread out throughout the whole day while Dad worked Uncle Don’s farm.
Dina said, “I was getting back at him.”
“Your dad’s friend?” I asked.
Ann shook her head. “At your father,” she said to Dina.
Dina smacked the handle of a rusted saw until it broke. She said, “That’s how it started.” In a smaller voice, she added, “But then I fell in love with him.”
I bit the inside of my bottom lip and looked at a beer can not burning in the fire. So she wasn’t just sleeping with him.
“We met at some family day. Dad makes two friends at each base—one guy his age and one guy younger than him. That’s always how it is. The younger guy asked me to be his partner for volleyball. I love volleyball.” She looked to Ann, who nodded her encouragement. She didn’t look at me.
“I was epic that day. He asked if I’d always be his partner, and I said yes. He’s handsome. And funny.”
I felt the fire’s hot burn in my gut. I smashed my beer can and threw it to the blaze.
Dina said, “We hung out the rest of the day. Just let Dad wonder and worry.” Hair near her mouth shuddered as she exhaled. “He could have stopped it if he’d told me. But maybe that was his point. Let me be who he’d always thought I was,” she said. “Two days later, at the post office, someone called, ‘Howdy, partner.’ We went for a coffee. He was older but not too old—nine years. He made me feel like a person, like I mattered.” She dug in the fire, shoved an old skunk pelt onto a scorched umbrella.
“After we’d had sex a couple of times, he told me. He’s a husband. He doesn’t wear a ring. He has a little girl. Julia. Three next month when she and her mom move to Drum.”
She’d stopped moving the stick, and it caught fire. She let it burn. I took it and stabbed it in the snow. I thought I’d hear it hiss, a low release of pent up steam, but only a thin trail of smoke rose from the old snow.
Dina said, “They’ve deposited me here.”
Aunt Ann asked, “He hit you?”
“Nope, I’m not worth the trouble.” She took her balm from her pocket, unhinged the tin.
I breathed it in like an addict.
She turned to Ann. “How sick is it that I think like that?”
Ann said, “We’re all a little sick, babe.”
Ann was right. I felt nauseous, couldn’t stand the cloying smoke. “Should I get more fuel?”
Ann looked at me and cocked her head, wore her disappointed face I knew from bad grades and Muriel’s bitching.
Dina said, “Let’s call it. Uncle Jack’s scotch needs finishing. Can you stay?”
I looked at Ann, and she nodded, though it shouldn’t have mattered. Except now, because of the husband, it did.
In the kitchen, at the table with juice glasses of scotch, I was angry at my pride in the bleached air, the clean counters. I wished all that shit back, so I could smash it to the ground. I asked, “Your parents still in Black Den?”
I could hit her dad now. It was his fault she loved someone else. I could sink to his level.
Dina said, “Nope. I told them I’d do it on my own.” She added, “When he went to town, I asked Mom to stay. She said she couldn’t make him go back to the base alone.” Dina shook her head. “She said she’d come visit. She won’t. She’ll have black hands.”
Ann tilted her head, silently asking the question for both of us.
She took out her lip balm. “When he hits her, she polishes her grandmother’s silver, gets that stinking polish all over. You smell it the moment you walk in the door. She never wears gloves. Her fingers are black for days. Like she wants everyone to know.”
Dina got up, said she had to see if she could hear the moon. She struggled with the window until it heaved, then slammed open. She stood on her toes. The moon blazed, looked like it could be heard.
Not even Ann had something to say. I looked at her, and she stared at me, and I supposed she could tell I was thinking she’d been right. For a long minute I just tried to hear the moon, too. Then Dina closed the window, came back to the table and talked about the next burn party for the dining room, where a thin path snaked through stacks of phonebooks, clothes, rusting cages, and traps.
After the scotch, we walked outside, and Aunt Ann’s phone rang. She said it was her patient, Mr. Freelander. She went back in the house, fumbling for her notebook in her purse as she went. Aunt Ann’s jeep was parked behind me. I had to wait.
I smacked icicles on the low hanging eave as we walked around the house to look at the fire. “What the hell, anyway?” I grabbed one of the longest icicles and javelined it through the air. “Why all the fake happy?”
She turned to me, and her dark eyes speared. “You could be accused of the same.”
I shook my head at the sky. We stopped at the top of the hill, and the night was silent without our boots crunching the snow.
The fire was hot coals smoldering. I remembered her describing the husband. I thought whore. “You pretend to be all open and honest and shit, but you’re just hiding your crap.”
She kissed me. Hard. Biting my lip, forcing her tongue in my mouth, smashing her body against mine. I gripped her, felt her cape of hair at the back of her neck and clutched it, snaked my tongue in her mouth, tasted her lip balm, then the hot pulse of her.
I saw lightning behind my eyes and pulled back. “This is how it was with the husband? All angry fucking? I’m not here for that.”
She looked as if she was going to spit, and then she just turned back towards the fire. I kicked snow into a pile, then mounded it into my hand, trying to hide the stiffy that erupted at her touch. I stood and balled the ice.
Dina put on her god damn lip gloss.
I packed the ice ball tight, letting my heat melt it solid. I felt my biceps clench with each compression. I looked at her bedroom window. Her shitty truck’s windshield.
“You’re pissed,” she said.
“Fuckin’ right I am.”
“Then break something,” she nodded at my hands.
I pulsed my hands around the ice ball. I ran my hands over it, and it was smooth all the way around. I shoved it toward her face. She didn’t move. I regripped the ball between thumb and forefinger, my hand shaking, and held it two inches from her nose, and then moved in on her so it was just the ice between us. I smelled her gloss and whispered, “Want me to be like the others? Want an excuse to write me off?”
She snatched the ice ball and flung it toward the dining room window. The ball exploded where the shutter met the wall. Chunks clung to the stucco and fell wetly in the quiet seconds afterwards. I expected Ann’s face to come to the window. “You don’t get to analyze my shit,” Dina said, just as quietly as I’d threatened her.
Once, during one of my late night internet binges, I’d read, Grief is wanting what you can’t have. No shit, Sherlock.
Dina sniffled once, and I wondered if it was the cold or if maybe I’d gotten to her. She shook her head and her black hair fell over her shoulder in sine waves.
From where I’d dug up the ice ball, a dark spot caught my eye. I bent and dug out the Fairchild’s propeller.
I balanced the propeller on my pinky finger and tried to spin it. It wobbled and made one complete turn. “I’m not like that.”
“I didn’t say you were.”
“You won’t like me because of that.” I sounded six. I stomped at the ice with the back of my heel.
Dina turned to me, but I remained facing the fire. I wished for another couch to burn. Maybe old cans of stain and wasp killer from the basement. Some gasoline.
Dina said, “You feel sorry for yourself.”
“I feel sorry for you.”
“I don’t need your pity,” she said, her voice even, stating a fact. The same thing I’d thought hundreds of times.
Then we just stood there. For a long time. Listening. I pocketed the propeller. To the west, a car turned from the paved road to the gravel road. Loud quiet banged my ears. A shadow passed over us, and I turned. Through the kitchen window Ann paced, still on the phone. My breath came almost evenly again, and I matched my breathing to Dina’s. Her hands weren’t moving; she was still.
I looked at the dark horizon, hard silhouetted trees, stars glinting. Coals popped. I wanted something sweet, something chocolate covered. I looked at Dina, a sheath of her dark hair, a pelt, slipping in the night wind, wild. I said, “I try to be happy because I don’t want people to think I’m sad.”
I looked at her. The moonlight roared. I laid my hand on her jacket, my fingers feeling for the inside of her elbow, feeling for a pulse. She didn’t smile, and I didn’t either.
The front storm door slammed. We walked toward Mr. Wildgin. “What will you do with the fields?” I asked.
Dina looked at me as if translating my words. Then she smiled, not her full lipped smile but a touch of smile, sympathetic, like I was dumb or slow. Or like the small smile she’d given me when I told her my parents were dead. Then her lips revealed her teeth, and she almost laughed. Dina said, “I don’t know a thing about farming. I can barely grow hair. Dad said Jack planted corn and beans. I was going to let it go wild.”
I nodded. I’d wait until the snow melted to make my offer.