By Lucas Church
Featured Art: Chinese Zodiac Animals in Harmony by Kerima Swain
On my birthday, the twenty-fifth anniversary of a space shuttle disaster, I move in with Uncle, who lives next to a trash heap. The heap is privately owned, not the county dump, not open to just anybody, and it’s haloed with crows. I squirrel myself upstairs while Uncle watches the video of the spaceship disintegrating into smoke, repeating. I mention in passing an ex-boyfriend with fists like cans of beans, that he’s looking for me, probably. Outside the crows bicker while I hide under the covers, the house full of Uncle’s sobs back to the television.
The shuttle exploded hours before I was born. A question of timing, my mother said.
Fast forward to our routine each morning: Uncle sloughs to the door and asks if I am okay, if I need anything. I always say no, but offer to clean his pool, where trash from the heap sometimes catches. Uncle doesn’t ask about Ex, though he’s gleaned I’m running from Ex’s jealousies and agendas, but rattles out something about decisions, good and bad, where they end us all up.
After weeks of this dance, he finally needs something: We lack pudding. Uncle has a sweet tooth. Or maybe we could go for dinner, he says, talk about things, hit some of the friendly bars, etc. Two guys on the prowl then silence and we all feel embarrassed for him together.
I brave the heap, and at its peak I can see the city, or the idea of it, in the distance. This is, I think, as good a spot as any to begin disappearing. Fewer people to make mistakes with. A hiding place until I figure out next steps. To be clear: I was full to the brim with Ex’s mouth, hands, eyes, the way all of these things undressed me whether I wanted to be or not. But, in this place, one that provides respite from those actualities, I have stumbled into Uncle’s carved-out life of quiet yearning, which he softens with intermittent television. Newly retired, he spends life between puddings, weeping to old movies with actors—Oh, Marilyn!—dead before he was born.
But: I know Uncle’s pain. His, a secret long-lost love, slick and European. A history. Uncle has always lived as a country queer, before collective bargaining and realness put us over into realms of acceptabilities, and he made do slopping out fantasies on undeserving townie dads. I catch his glances at the phone, his estranged man not calling. So I think, while I run, that I can help Uncle reunite with his Rudolpho.
Also, I’ve started getting calls from UNKNOWN.
So I propose to Uncle a road trip to points unexplored. I don’t tell him that Ex still shows up in my dreams, that sitting still would invite trouble. “It’ll be great,” I say, believably.
“I never thought to consider leaving,” he says, words dropping singly like rocks into a bucket. “I have, in the past, fallen into trouble when away from home.”
We hatch plans to pack up and slip out under darkness (a romantic gesture to the spirits). I make a mental note to scour the heap for salable metals.
When we met, Ex charmed me with old capitalisms: Always another day, another dollar; that time is money, and me, I was more than he bargained for. I asked what he thought he was buying.
I think of him when I see stubble, slick teeth, and suit pants that stop just above the ankle to reveal a man with no care to pair socks with wingtips.
Nobody wears wingtips here. After slushing up and down interstates for weeks playing tourist in buggy mountain towns, we check into a motel in a city famous for its closed furniture factories. We’ve burned through Uncle’s miniscule retirement funds, and he charges me with backing the rest of the expedition, lecturing that food and gasoline are not free, that clothes do not wash themselves, etc.
A few calls, my old tricks reignited, and I meet a boy at his place, an off-white mobile home, and he takes his time spilling his problems down my back. After we shower, he pours me a black coffee and asks why the long face. I mention Ex, that he is looking for me still, I think, that I broke his heart, I think. “Did he pay attention to you?” the boy asks, “buy you the things you wanted?” I shrug, say yes. The boy stops pouring a second cup long enough to tell me that money is just the paper version of affection and that I should have been grateful.
His take: “There have been parts of my life I can point to now and say That wasn’t so bad and then there were parts more like this.”
Later, old men with sticky car seats and cameras with real flash bulbs—I meet them out by the access roads, just beyond the city limits, where all the mattress stores are always going out of business.
Pockets everywhere bulge.
Ex, before he was Ex, readied himself for work. Outside, the sound of metal dragging over pavement.
—What’s that? I asked, new to city sounds. A train?
He shook his head.
Ex knotted a tie, starched his shirt collar, readied himself, said he’d see me when he got back home.
—I’m new at this, I said. You’ll be home?
He took my wrists, said that I should be quiet, that he’d do the thinking for both of us. His grip left, would always leave, impressions on my skin.
Once, when I expressed a desire to travel, see places I’d only read about on my phone, he screamed, mid-removal of his cravat, What are you looking to find that isn’t already here? He liked to, arms outstretched, drama his way through the apartment, pointing out bauble after bauble of reason to be contented.
What I didn’t understand at the time was that you don’t have to have a thing to look for to go out to find it.
On the last day, when everything had been done there was to do, and lunchtime was still hours away, I pried the closet open, a pocket door that often stuck, and produced a ruler. I measured a suitcase to see how much extra air there was to fill. In the end, it was at least a life’s worth.
Re-re-crossing state lines, I tell Uncle my escape from Ex, my long letter explaining my desires to roam, taste different schemas, fall by someone else’s wayside; Uncle imagines me in that apartment like a child abandoned in a shopping mall. So alone, so vulnerable.
Instead of agreeing with him, should I say my truth? That I’m tired of boys knocking on my ribs like my heart will answer the door? That one, a dewdrop with an untucked chin, wormed his way in on this very trip? When we were stranded in the mountains, a late-winter snowstorm chalking up the place?
That knock: I had ushered him in carelessly. He had asked if I knew the whereabouts of the ice machine, and we took it from there. While Uncle had showered, unaware of my entanglements, I sought answers to long forgotten questions until my visitor felt he was on the verge of being missed next door. I almost, in a fit of what might have been love, asked if I’d see him again!
In the dark, I had awakened and still felt the wet of my stranger linger on my face, and, for the first time in this whole thing, I thought I could learn to miss somebody. Uncle shifted into mid-nightmare, making lost puppy sounds and testing this new idea of where my heart should be. I crawled into bed with him and pushed him over and spooned. He quieted and, eventually, so did I.
I search Uncle’s phone, find a Rudy. The old man had kept the hope alive, it seems. Country codes, strings of numbers collapse, until I’m sifting through a broken conversation with a confused man who recognizes my name even though we’ve never spoken. His accent is vaguely Continental.
“So that’s the plan,” I tell him: I will orchestrate Rudolpho’s trip to meet us, surprise Uncle, and reunite lovers, to make him remember what it was like to not pudge around listless and pudding-full.
“I do, if I can say, miss him,” Rudolpho says. “I feel shame in that, but it is the truth. Even though he left me, the coward, I still would see him.”
“It’s okay to miss someone,” I say.
“Why do you want to do this?” he asks. “Do you know our past? Of the things we both said that I don’t know if either of us wants to take back?”
“I don’t know,” I say, but that’s only part of it. Who knows the answer to that kind of question? But I need to see if it can work, if the past can be fixed—to learn the difference between memories and history. “Can you take those words back? Even if you don’t want to?”
“I don’t know,” he says. “He is the one to decide that.”
After promising to wire the money, I clear the call history, a habit. I grew up in a house where every surface was used to store something: baskets tacked to doors to cradle orphan shoes, scarves, ties; cabinets forking into cubbies with stashed spices, curios, unopened mail. A mess masquerading as a life. When we left Uncle’s, I tossed what I had to the heap to make the thing they talk about on television, the clean break.
“I didn’t know what people meant when they said fell in love, like I never had a feeling that I could pinpoint as that feeling, but that is because I didn’t know that I wasn’t trusting myself to know what my own feelings meant. I don’t know if I thought cartoon hearts would flutter and pop around me, or if I would feel anything other than the . . . solidness? The foundational part of it, how love is the thing you build on, the thing that helps you stand up and keep walking, even when everything else is going into the shitter. That’s the thing I felt, that’s what I think love is, and I’m just starting to realize that now. Does that make sense?”
Meanwhile, as Rudolpho awaits in the next town, Uncle lazes in the passenger seat, murmuring in his old man tongue. I turn up the radio, the static pelting us like hail.
“What would you do,” I ask, speeding up, “for another shot at something you wanted?”
See Rudolpho in his suit, sitting on a motel bed loosening his tie. Jacket too small and bunching at the armpits.
“What would you do,” I ask, “for a chance to fix a mistake?”
Hear Rudolpho hum, warm his voice to the empty room, mumble to himself his introductory lines, practicing for when the door opens. Let’s not say it’s been a long while. Let’s say it’s been a short catnap.
“What would you do,” I ask, beating my hands on the steering wheel, “for the chance to slide over to the next life with fewer regrets than you ought to have?”
Uncle fudges up reasons to keep sleeping until we pull into the motel parking lot, the building a seafoam green to make believe we’re near to the coast, and I push him out the door, confident he will realize the favor I’m forcing down his throat.
The haste to reconnect Uncle with Rudy lets me, in distraction, drift further into Ex’s search for me than I intended. It’s been weeks since I blundered Uncle out into his future. Here, in my latest motel parking lot, found underneath the windshield wiper:
WHENEVER—IN THE DARK—U SEE
HEADLIGHTS POINTED IN YR
DIRECTION, I WILL BE THERE
I recognize the cadence, the phrasal infix interrupting, as Ex’s particular breathlessness. And the handwriting. I flip the note:
THAT IS SUPPOSED
TO BE ROMANTIC
He was always a misunderstandable boy.
Ex’s car crests the top slope of the parking lot, headlights shining on me. The phone rings. It’s Uncle.
He begins: “At first, I was very angry. The impropriety of the situation, the fact I wasn’t allowed to prepare! I didn’t know I’d be face to face with him. Do you understand that I was ambushed, in a sense? That there was a history there you weren’t privy to, even if you think you knew it all? Of course, now, I can’t imagine life anymore, let alone without him. Do you think that’s a sentimental thing?”
I could say that to find the one who loves you is enough?
“But have you ever done the same thing as this? Or had someone do this to you? Force a reconciliation? I’d guess not, no. But at a moment, whether you want it to or not, control leaves you, like so many people have and will. You don’t get to call the shots all the time.”
I could plead that the calling of shots, I’m new to it?
“It’s just that I don’t know if you know that. Do you?” In the background, Rudolpho’s unmistakable itchy tenor cuts through, a request to come back to bed.
I ask, “Are you happier now than back at home? At the dump?” I am surprised at how desperate I am to know the answer.
“Well,” he says, “I am for now, but how long? I don’t know. I hope that, if I was some test case, that I proved your thesis. Did I?’”
As I watch Ex walk toward me, a silhouette against his headlights, I tell him probably.
“That’s as good as I can ask,” he says. “You led me here. Someone will lead you, too.” Then he tells me he feels loved by the universe and gets cut off.
Ex finds me where he left me: in a car, counting pocket change for cigarettes.
In celebration of reunification, he takes me out for strip mall Chinese. On the placemats, I doodle dirty Christmas cartoons for the Cambodian busboys to find after we’re gone. Ex looks up from his menu and I forget the words I was going to say—something like I thought my Dear John letter was clear—and instead tell him all I want is an egg roll, maybe also a bite of whatever he’s going to get.
The waiter takes our order. Ex pulls out his copy of The Fountainhead he fake-reads around company.
“It’s the year of the monkey,” I say, looking for conversation and knowing he never conceded to the conceptual foundation of the Chinese zodiac.
“Garbage,” he says. “I mean, how is it that the whole year is the animal, not just a month or whatever. It’s like the whole year you’re sunk being a . . . a . . . ”
He searches to find his birth year.
I think, while he’s busy, perhaps I was more of a mistake for him than the vice versa.
He continues to scan spectral animals and I list the red flags: He wears a ring on every finger; trades out the labels for those of more expensive clothes; locks my heart away while forcing a life upon me meant for someone else, a different boy I’d only heard him mention in passing over egg foo young at some other restaurant. He was a Horse, I think. Or a Rooster.
“You’re a Sheep,” I tell him: “Elegant and creative, you are timid and prefer anonymity. You are most compatible with Boars and Rabbits, but never an Ox.” “Oh, right,” he says. “I still confuse my birth year with yours.” (I melt a little.) He sniffs, his leather shoes squeak, and I ask him to read mine.
“Rat,” he says, radio announcer-y. “Ambitious, yet honest. Prone to spend freely. Seldom make lasting friendships. Most compatible with Dragons and Monkeys.”
“Never an Ox,” I finish for him.
“Never an Ox,” he says. “Good thing I’m a Sheep.” He gets up and excuses himself to the restroom. In the middle of the empty restaurant, he turns and says, “I’m sorry. For all of it. I didn’t understand who you were. I thought you would tell me what I was supposed to do, but you left instead. Maybe we can do it differently this time? Talk more? Less?”
He shuffles, handsomely. “Whatever keeps you with me.” Smiling, I place my hand over my heart and he takes that as an effort, one of good faith.
But what if our only thing was that we don’t get along with Oxes? And how can this be the conclusion? That, after he did the thing he thought was romantic—to come and find and capture me—that his bag of tricks is empty? That action is, when sloppy, overrated? I know that I have done the same thing, but to Uncle, pushing him into the arms of someone I assumed he still loved, whom I assumed still loved him.
Knowing our abilities to change are nonexistent (I push forward unable to stop, he leaves his wallet unguarded, loves a good chase), I pocket his cash, cards, phone, etc. while he slicks down his eyebrows in the bathroom mirror.
One thing, the day before the last time I left him: He, finger pointed, said You always just let things happen. He said You shouldn’t just let things happen to you, you need to make things happen. Our food comes as I’m picking up Ex’s car keys. The waiter, a sleepy walnut of a man, motions “To go?” at our dinner. I tell him that Ex is staying behind to finish the meal. But I do taste the eggroll, licking its grease from my fingers.
One last thing: He didn’t understand that at one point we happened to the world, and what we mistake as ourselves is the world forever happening back.
Lucas Church is the author of the short story collection “A little gunpowder, a little boat, and boom” (Press 53, 2021). His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Pleiades, Hotel Amerika, and the Chattahoochee Review, among other journals. He holds an MFA from North Carolina State University. You can reach him at lucaschurch.com.