Dora’s disappeared again. I see her lying in the field, in the abandoned refrigerator. She’s not sleeping and she’s not dead: she’s between these places. And though I’m afraid for her even now, from this distance of years I can tell you Dora Stone is going to live.
The first time it happened, she was five years old, thirty-six pounds. While Mother dozed in the shade of her striped umbrella, Dora wandered up the beach, into the cool waves. She felt sand shifting under her feet, her small body sinking in the tug of an undertow. One man up the shore was close enough to save her. One fat white man burned red seemed to stare. But he didn’t come. Was he blind behind his glasses, or was he curious, wanting to see what the child might do?
She wasn’t that deep really. She wasn’t going to drown. She was her own voice whispering in her own ear. Just walk out. Mother found her, safe and dry, so Lily’s fury, stripped of fear, was pure, and the slaps were quick and hard, familiar—Dora knew how to let them fall—no crying, no ducking—the sting went away soon enough, and Mommy was sorry in the dark; Mommy came to Dora’s room and lay down beside her in the blue bed. Mommy cried and held Dora, stroked her precious body, touched arm and neck and thigh as if to be sure the child was all there. She said. What would Mommy do if she lost you?
These are the bodies Lily’s lost already: the husband with another wife and two sons; the mother shrinking in the bed, wrinkling into the sheets till she was gone; the half man down the hall, her father, lost; her own unknown self. She’s not fat but blurred, lost in her body: drooping breasts and buttocks, spread white belly—lily white Lily Stone —not a flower now though her skin is still petal soft and that pale, that easily bruised—don’t touch Mommy too hard, don’t hug her too close, but she can touch you where and how she wants, can slap your head on the beach or swat your butt, can come to your room and lie beside you in your little bed, her breath wine sweet, her body a weight and heat that fills your room till you blur too, into her, precious baby, the place that is yourself and not yourself has disappeared, but you don’t look at her here, and she’s come to this room so many times you’re not scared—why would you be scared of your own mother who only wants to lie this close? Yes, it’s hot, but you’re used to that, so you let her sleep and do not tell her of waves or undertow, do not speak of sand, though you feel them in your body now, in your body that remembers everything, the pull and lick, the ground beneath you slipping. You do not speak of the burning man. He’s yours. You keep these places to go alone: the water, the blind man’s eyes, the stranger’s hands.
The next time, Dora’s six, tied in the closet, forgotten by twelve year old Max, her cousin and best friend, who has used his favorite knot—the Lazarus Loop —so called because a person has roughly the same chance of escaping it as she has of rising from the dead.
It will happen again. Dora’s bike is in the reeds by the canal. But eight year old Dora is gone. Or she’s eleven, drunk on beer with Max who is no longer allowed in their grandfather’s house. They dance in the back of the truck, radio blaring, doors flung open, yellow light spilling into the swamp. The man in the song says he’s a razor he’s a rifle he’s the water and Max says, You’re dangerous, girl. Hours later, in the still dark, Dora wakes groggy and mystified on her own front lawn.
In the morning she’ll learn of the stolen truck, Max’s escape from the Alpena School for Boys, a string of gas stations robbed from Michigan to Florida and one attendant shot in the hand. So if you know, little girl, you better tell us where. Armed and dangerous, sweet tender Max, shaved almost bald—Max whose dirty fingers snarled your long hair when he pulled you close —you should have known.
She’s seven, she’s twelve, she’s fourteen, she’s gone.
I see a dark skinned boy on a bike riding toward the refrigerator in the fleld. He doesn’t know what’s in it, but he spots the silver bicycle sparkling in the grass. He can’t believe what he finds. He’s only a child, but he knows she’s dangerous to him. He doesn’t check for breath or pulse, doesn’t lean close to see she’s just a girl. He’s sman enough not to touch. He flies across the field, pumping harder than he thought he could while the sun blazes and spits in the bleached white sky.
I’m Dora. I’m the girl in the refrigerator. I’m the girl in the closet.I’m the girl who’s left her bike in the reeds by the canal. I can’t be found.
I know you’re afraid of where I’m going when I tell you this. I’m afraid. But I can’t stop. Forgetting is the first lie, a little death. I won’t abandon myself piece by piece. I know what happens to wicked runaway girls. You find us in rivers of grass, or floating in ponds. You find us under our own beds or stuffed in the hedges of our own yards. You find our shoes in trash heaps. When we surface at last, you give numbers to our bones. But this isn’t one of those stories. See, these are my hands. This is my voice talking. As long as you hear me, I’m alive.
One night, my father forgot to come home. Max forgot the boy with the bullet in his palm, forgot a woman pushed from her truck to the road. Max says, I never did nothin’ wrong. My grandfather sits in the wheelchair upstairs, touching his right hand with his left, trying to remember when his body had two sides and the words that might explain. Mother says, Just a bad dream, baby.
They leave me to remember it all.
These are the rules: Don’t sit in the sun.
Don’t ride your bike on the road.
Don’t walk by the canal.
Everything here is dangerous: heat, wind, days of rain—this water wants to rise, wants to take back this ground—waves want to splinter boats and wash dark bodies to the shore. Grass cuts your hand if you grab it; leaves tipped with poison pierce your clothes. The alligator in the sun looks harmless as rubber, a truck’s blown tire, only the eyes moving, but one flick of the tail and you’ll be in the water, your legs broken, your back numb.
But Dora always disobeyed; Dora always walked home along the canal. Even the ducks were fierce. She swatted at them with a stick. One bit her cheek —see, beneath the eye, this white scar.
Grandpa said: Go get my gun. He hated the ducks. Their noise. Their shit on his lawn. Dora promised to stay on the road, but he said: Actions have consequences. She knows she is the consequence of certain actions for which her mother is to blame. She knows she can’t stop him now. This has nothing to do with her, the wound on the cheek, the eye that could have been lost. This is the voice of the gun, the stutter in the brain, the trembling hand, a hurt so old it’s hard and small as the bullet in the heart of the gun.
She knows where it is, exactly, where it stands in the closet, propped against the wall —the clean, oiled, loaded rifle. She knows, already, how it feels in her small hands—exactly how long, how smooth. She knows its surprising weight.
Her grandfather once dreamed cities into being—the straight grids of streets, the safe repetition of houses—raised them out of wet ground. Now he speaks with a stutter; his walk is a stutter too. He’s had one stroke already, will have six more before he dies, so Dora’s mother says: He couldn’t have killed the ducks, but Dora remembers the heavy bodies of birds falling from the sky.
And she remembers the girl. The moon was new, a carved blade slung low at twilight, reflected in water. She wanted to dive through it, into the rippling shadows of palms, wanted to swim away from her grandfather whose hand was hot, whose whole body smelled of the swamp. But she was more afraid of the canal: reeds to wrap ankle and wrist, mud to suck you down.
This is why her grandfather dragged her here. This is what she saw. A pale girl in dark water. Floating. Face down.
Her grandfather squeezes her hand so tight her face goes numb.
This is her proof: her own feet cut by the shells embedded in the road. Fine scars now.
A dream. Mother says. Yes, a girl did drown, but your grandfather was in a wheelchair by then, so how could he take you to the canal.?
Dora can’t ask him. He doesn’t know.
She’s the only one who remembers how the water looked that night, smooth and slow, its surface tight as skin and just as fragile. How the girl’s body seemed not to have fallen. She rose. She broke the skin. She was the white scar on the black surface of memory. Whether she existed or not, she was the place you entered if you wanted to remember it all.
This part Dora doesn’t remember—she can’t—she wasn’t there. So she doesn’t know how the boy who found her in the refrigerator told nobody all day, how he hid instead under his own porch, hoping that what he’d seen wasn’t real, that he’d wake and forget. His mother stood at the door calling his name. The earth was dark, the sky still blue. The third time, her voice broke him, and the child crawled out.
He talks his way backward till he see more at dusk than he saw in the scorched field. He knows now she’s only a girl,very white but burned red, almost blistering, her eyelids—did he come that close? —yes, now he remembers —and her thighs, streaked with dirt —no, not dirt, something dry, rust colored, flaking off her skin.
His mother is afraid for him in a new way, not afraid as she was when she stood alone and her son was only her voice, an image in her mind, the shape of her lips in the dark—now he’s here, with her, in her arms, dirty, whole, but she’s afraid because she wonders what they’ll think when he tells them. It’s been hours. She hears herself pleading. He’s only eight years old. She wants to hide under the porch with him and wait till dawn—she’s a mother after all—but she stts the girl, those sore eyes. She believes in grace and knows this child, like hers, might be alive.
Dora doesn’t remember how the boy led dogs and men back to the field in the now complete dark, doesn’t remember how they questioned him, how they tried to make him conjure somebody else in that field, tried to make him believe that man’s face was dark and familiar and this was the reason for his silence.
And she doesn’t remember the hands under her, the hands on her chest pumping, the mouth on her mouth breathing, doesn’t remember her body lifted to the stretcher, the white ambulance, the mask over nose and mouth, the needle jabbed in the vein and taped to the hand, doesn’t remember the long white hall or the cool metal of the scissors cutting her out of her clothes, doesn’t remember all the hands on her, where they touched and how.
Remembers only this: waking in the white room and her mother there asleep in the chair beside her, her mother opening her eyes at the same moment Dora opened hers, and in this way she thought her mother must know what had happened but won’t say now or ever what it was, will only refer to it in the future as the time Dora rode her bike too long in the sun, the time Dora passed out and nearly died in the heat—and hadn’t she been warned?
She doesn’t feel anything inside. Feels only her burned skin. She would tell her mother something if she knew where to start.
Imagine this: another boy, not the one who will find her. None of that has happened yet. This one’s no boy really and no stranger. Lewis Freyer. Like prayer, Dora thinks—when she remembers her hands on him it’s that quiet.
Estrelle who is his mother used to come twice a week to clean the house, and Lewis came too sometimes until Estrelle caught them: filthy, together. Now she comes every day to take care of Dora’s grandfather. She has a mother of her own at home, an old woman in a chair but not a wheelchair—they don’t have money for that—and anyway, Lewis is strong enough to lift her anywhere she needs to go. She was six feet tall, a prison guard, and now she’s only four feet long, got one wooden leg and one stump, and if there’s any sense in that Estrelle doesn’t know. Dora’s never seen her, has only heard Estrelle talk. For years Estrelle has walked to and from this house, across fields and roads, a mile and a half each way, but Estrelle’s not a young woman, you know, and lately her feet been bothering her, swollen and a bit numb, and this is how her mother’s troubles started, so now Lewis brings her in the morning, returns for her in the afternoon.
He’s sullen. No matter how hot it is, he stays in the gold Impala. He won’t come out for iced tea or lemonade, won’t sit in the shade, won’t answer Dora when she says. You’re melting, Lewis.
He sits like a deaf man, refuses to wipe his face though the sweat trickles into ears and eyes, though the salt burns. Yes, he’s melting, but he can sit still as plaster and stare through the skinny white girl.
Dora says: You go too long without blinking, your eyes gonna dry up and fall out of your skull.
Still, nothing—as if he’s forgotten how they crawled through culverts under roads, snagged their clothes on barbed wire, fell down in the field alone.
He’s a grown man, eighteen years old, so he can’t remember the weight of her small body on his, her dirty hand over his mouth. Remembers only this: Estrelle in the yard, Estrelle descending: I’m gonna beat your black skin blue, remembers that the seven year old girl who’s now fourteen was the reason for this and other shame.
Silent as he is, Dora persists. It’s hot. She’s bored. Nobody but Estrelle has come to the house all summer. Nobody but the skittish boy with festering skin who brings groceries and cases of wine to the back door. Nobody but the Haitian gardener with his whirring blades who carves the hedges, trims the lawn, every day. She could ride down the road, swim a hundred laps in a tiny pool while two other girls her age, her friends, lie greased and golden in the blistering sun. But she’d rather wait here, with him.
On the twelfth day, he speaks.
He says, “What the fuck do you want?”
After all her pestering she doesn’t know. “Nothing,” she says and for three days doesn’t go near the car. Then he’s the one to tempt her. She’s on the porch, and he gets out of the Impala, so she see him, really, for the first time—a man—thin but hard, all long muscle, dark in the bright sun.
This Lewis, who grins, who says, “I am thirsty,” who takes the lemonade in his big hand and drinks it all in one pull, this Lewis who gives her the empty glass, leaves her mute. It’s his hands that silence her, the way they flutter like wings opening so she see the pale undersides marked with fine dark lines. This Lewis who squints, who almost scowls, makes her feel ashamed of her small body. She hears Lily say. Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t stand in the sun. She hears Grandpa: Go get the gun. The heavy bodied birds drop from the sky, and Max whispers. You’re dangerous, girl. It must be true, because even though she never said a word. Max, her sweetheart, her first love, was caught again.
Lewis says, “You meet me up the road I’ll take you for a ride someday.” She says she can’t, and he laughs but it’s mean —he says, “I thought you liked me.”
She thinks of Max in jail, Max blaming her all these years, dangerous eleven year old Dora getting him drunk.
She says, “It’s not what you think.”
Lewis is sliding his long body into the gold Impala; he’s closing the door slowly, a deliberate softness, he’s whispering his words so she has to lean close; he’s saying. Tell me what I think.
“Tomorrow,” she says. And though she’s afraid of what she’ll do to him, she can’t stop what they’ve begun.
They make love in her grandfather’s car parked in the dark garage. They make love in the gold Impala at the end of a deserted road. They can’t be seen together. They know this but never speak of it. They find a refrigerator in a field, a white box, a home, and they lie down but it’s much too small. They remember childhood paths through woods and swamp, under barbed wire, over walls. Lewis knows how to come at night into the huge dark house, which door she’s left unlocked; he knows how to be a shadow among shadows moving through the long halls, how to breathe as the house breathes, how to find Dora in the blue room in the soft bed, how to slip his hand over her mouth so she won’t cry out, how to move like water through her and out of her, how to flow down the dark stairs into the dark yard before gathering himself into the hard shape of a man. Go get the gun. There’s nobody here to say it now, nobody but the old man with half a face, the old man who can’t get out of bed alone, who lies like a bug on his back till morning when Estrelle comes. There’s nobody here but the mother fallen across the couch, snoring in wine thick sleep. Nobody here but little Dora in the damp bed.
Tonight he lifted his grandmother, carried her from the chair where she sits all day to the couch where she sleeps. Even without her legs she’s a big woman, heavy. She never leaves this house, but she sees far beyond these walls. She feels the heat of the boy’s skin where he touches. She knows. She says. You watch yourself, Lewis. She says. Your mama’s had all the sorrow she can bear.
He would never tell Dora, would never name his mother’s grief, would never describe the three rooms where he lives with her and her mother and two sisters, the kitchen table where he and his sisters and brother were born, would never try to explain what it means to be the youngest child of seven and the only man in the house.
But somehow she knows. She imagines the old woman in his arms, knows that despite her losses she weighs more than Dora ever will, that this weight is a thing he carries every time he climbs the stairs of her house.
He does not find her pretty in any way. She has a flat butt, barely swollen breasts. The thick blue veins roping her thin arms seem unnatural on a girl so small. Her blond hair is clipped short, dyed black, but comes in yellow at the roots. In any light she looks too naked, not just stripped but skinned.
He’s had girls before. Women he calls them. They knew what to do. They had red mouths, quick hands. They were never this naked. They were wet and open, their bodies full and safe and soft. They had rubbers in their purses. He could meet them anywhere, any time. No one had to lie.
He and Dora never talk. They know everything and nothing; they’re bound: his mother combs her grandfather’s hair, clips his nails, wipes his bum. She’s more than wife or daughter ever was. What the old man feels for Estrelle is his secret but will never be as fragile or forgettable as love.
The blue car.
The stifling heat of the garage.
He says, “Does it scare you?”
She knows he means his body, how long it is, how dark, and she thinks of her mother climbing out of the tub, all that flush rushing toward her, loose breasts flapping, dimpled thighs whispering where they rub—she thinks of her grandfather grabbing with his one good hand, the thumbprint of bruise he leaves—she thinks of the cheek she’s supposed to kiss, the rough white whiskered skin —she imagines these familiar bodies, how they make her forget what’s her and not her, how she’s terrified of the place they blur.
Where Lewis touches, he defines —dark hand on white rib. So she’s not afraid. But he is —afraid of these frail ribs. He can rest his long fingers in the spaces between them—she’s that thin, and her skin too, so fine he feels he might put his hand through her. He would not say he loves her or even likes her. If he could explain it at all, he might say it is this fear that makes him tender, this fear that brings him to the house again and again—he sees her brittle ribs as the rigging of a tiny boat rocking on black water; it is this sound, waves lapping wood, that calls him. Small and breakable as the girl is, the body he enters is a way out.
Tonight Dora’s grandfather could not be comforted. He rolled around and around the room, using his cane to move the chair with his strong left hand. He dumped the drawers, looking for something that can’t be found. He refused to understand who Lily was, and finally she left him, locked him in the room so he wouldn’t propel himself down the hall, so he wouldn’t fly down the stairs. He banged the wheels of his chair against the door. He rattled the knob. When his yell broke to a whimper, it was Estrelle’s name he called.
Dora tells Lewis none of this. She wants to be her body only, her body in the car, in the rain, out here on the black road. But her body is a map. Her body is a history. His fingers find every scar and bruise. What happened here, and here? He doesn’t ask, but where he touches she remembers. She cries, and he holds her. He expects no explanation. He isn’t scared of sorrow. It doesn’t surprise him. When he’s calmed her, he touches her again.
She imagines her grandfather upstairs in the house far from this road. He’s rolled his chair close to the window. He’s trying to see through the rain, trying to remember his right shoulder, how the raised rifle kicked as he fired. He’s trying to count the ducks falling from the sky but there are too many—they always come too fast —and then he sees, he understands this one thing: it’s only the rain.
She imagines Lewis’s grandmother—one stump, one wooden leg—Lewis is touching her legs, and she sees her own future, her body coming apart, how she’ll lose it piece by piece. She doesn’t know how he does this to her, why he won’t stop. They make love so many times, so long, her fingers and feet and lips go numb.
They will be caught. It’s necessary. They know this as they know each other: without words. They are waiting in their silence to see how it will happen.
The gold Impala, empty.
A dirt road.
Tonight they saw the pretty little horses, the setting sun.