from In a Red State
Farrah Field

You close the front door and stare at your hand, watch it press the door closed until the latch clicks. Your hand leaves no mark. You rest your cheek where your hand was, but you feel no heat. The door doesn’t know about your hand, where it has been that day, about the almonds, about the smell of glue later on. Tomorrow the hand will join the other hand to dress you. Why is your body so tired? Someday you’ll tell your hand what happened to your elbow. Only one side of the door feels Chet backing down the driveway, the breadth of his headlights expanding as he backs farther away. The car reversing while the person behind the wheel thinks about moving forward.

Buzzing on your thigh. There’s a phone wrapped in its own cord in your pocket.  Maybe you ought to fish it out. Maybe Mama’s almost dead and calling you is her last act. Maybe someone else is calling to inform you. The phone comes out. The cord spirals to the floor and the plug hits your foot. You want to say ow-goddammit on principle, but it doesn’t hurt. The phone opens. There is a message. It glows on your face in the dark house. The words say don’t be lonesome without me. You are so lucky. Beatrice will pick Mama up and bring her home tomorrow. “K,” you type. You shut the phone like shutting your face and the inky air covers what the streetlight on the corner can’t reach through the front door windows.

“Mama’s not going to be here tonight,” you announce to the dark house. Mama struggled for her life over there on the carpet. Or was it on the tile? Your father would know. You take off your coat and lie down. The hard floor relaxes your tired back. You hug your knees to your chest as close to your face as they will go then stretch back out. You want to return the phone to your pocket and take it back out again, running it and your hand along your underwear line. If only you could call yourself to make it vibrate. You can become intimate with any place on the body when noticed in a different way—a mosquito bite, hair behind the knee, little pool of skin below the ankle. Starting at the knee, you run a fingernail down one of the dry rivers between the corduroy levees of your pants. The warmth is like a sheet being taken out of a dryer. Do you even know what panties you’re wearing? Is it the mint green cotton pair that you made for yourself last year? What color is the trim? You lift up your shirt and hold up your pants to look. Your underwear is black with a black lace seam. You lift one edge and run your finger down across your appendectomy scar.

A foot taps. The right foot. You never sit still for very long. If you weren’t always doing something, you would be dead. You stand, gather your floor pile and place it on top of the couch on the way out the back door. The air is wet by habit and cool with ice. Your own breath hovers about your face, blue and bound for the full moon. It’s not often you see your own breath in Louisiana. Not too far from the house rests a shadow among other shadows of the keeled-over pecan tree in the middle of the yard. A way in which to spare the tree: line up everyone you know and have them hold it above their heads until the roots take to the ground again, lifting itself upright. After all, its leaves are still alive. A branch with a silkworm nest hangs in the air. The tree has flattened the aged wooden fence that used to divide your neighbor’s property from yours. Perhaps the fence only stood because nothing ever tried to knock it over before. The boards were fresh many years ago, but humidity rusted the old hinges that stained them. You walk closer to the wrecked area and look across at the neighbor’s yard. Beer cans decorate the grass near the back porch. Black plastic bags line the still-standing portion of the fence. A doll’s arm protrudes from one of the bags. Near the pool is the skeleton of a swing set—no slide or swings remain. You can’t remember if they even had children; you never saw any laughing and playing over there. Dirt, algae, and melting ice fill the pool. Why don’t they even clean or swim in their own pool? Are they raising gators? You remember the backyard dog they tied not too far from the tree. The stump is half pulled out of the ground and swords of the trunk slice at the air in every direction where the tree broke off. Some people never get rid of fallen tree stumps. They stop approaching them as grass spreads over. After many years, a hairy mound next to a hairy pool.

You shiver. You left your coat indoors. You try the door, but it’s locked behind you. Since when does this door lock? An unspoken rule of the house says the back door should be left unlocked, in case someone forgets her keys. You walk around the fallen tree toward the shed. An animal nearby. Possum or raccoon. You’re scared to stick your hand in a spider web. The shed’s stale air as you grab the ladder. You can’t remember the last time you climbed into the house. Rung after rung, you adjust the ladder to its maximum height, high enough to reach the upstairs hallway window on the side of the house. What if all last times were marked by some significance? What if it were more than just the voice inside your head—this is your last chai tea on Front Street and this is the last time he will touch the bony spot on the back of your neck. What if these moments showed up on your calendar—last time for his finger and last brunch at Barney Greengrass. There are small audiences of ice watching you from random spots. It looks as though someone had a big party, a barbeque, and all the ice cooling off shrimp or drinks was emptied out into the yard.

Is this all desire is—the awareness of having a body? That someone should do something with it? Talk to it? You look younger, little tired body, without your clothes on, someone could say. My, my—these shoulders must be the tightest Southern shoulders I ever rubbed. You climb a ladder into your mother’s house and your knee pops. Self, your knee popped. You focus on the knee as you climb. One worry replaces the other; first, you worry about your unused body then you worry about your run-down body. Compare desire with worry: city life, making rent and art; sitting life, caretaking. You used to be afraid of heights, but you climb to the top without considering former fears because desire outweighs fear.

You haven’t been impaled, but a certain pain jars your arm, elbow, and lower back because you have fallen through from the windowsill at the end of the hall. Mama used to have a table here, you think as you slowly rise to your feet, rubbing the area that will produce a bruise on your side. Why didn’t you know the table was gone? Everyone knows you should enter a window feet first, Joanna. Everyone knows everything you don’t, Joanna.

Dragging a finger along the wall under frames, you walk toward the gold-framed leaner mirror at the end of the hallway. It has been there since your grandmother’s death. You haven’t paid much attention to this reflection for some time—yourself walking toward yourself with deliberate steps. When you were little, you figured you’d fill out more of the mirror, but there’s still more hallway than you. On the left side of the frame, you look for little pencil markings and dates that tracked your height. The hallway glows with a bright, warm blue kind of darkness—a clear night with a full moon. You kick your shoes into your bedroom. Mama won’t be home until tomorrow. You peel off your socks and pants, coolly damp on the bottom seam from the cold grass. Then your turtleneck finds the floor. Stretch out your arms and look at your ribs. You’re skinnier than you used to be. Is that a new mole near your armpit? A series of five new wrinkles scrunched next to each eye? Step closer and check for other surprises your face may offer. Your neck hangs looser than you remember. The side part of your hair thins as an act of routine and permanence. Slide a hand up to the middle of your back where it meets with the ends of your hair. Flip your hair to see how it looks the other way, but it falls back. Snap off your bra and turn to the side, leaning your head far back to see how much longer your hair dangles. Never has it been this long. You haven’t had it cut since you moved back here. Is there really anyone in this town who could style it the way you want? You ought to cut it yourself. Those bruises in the middle of your back—from the weight of your backpack during the bike rides to work. These legs—they have a lean quality that you remember wanting some time ago. These biker’s legs no one notices. Maybe you should stop taking care of yourself in this pie festival of a town. Turn around and look at yourself over your shoulder. Lean forward and touch your toes, spying yourself upside down, red-faced. What if someone was here with you, looking at you, asking you to turn around again, watching every gesture you make in the mirror.

After walking into your room, you reach for your pajama drawer, but decide to throw on a shirt lying on the floor. You haven’t walked around in your underwear since leaving New York. You haven’t been by yourself for a whole night since leaving New York. Mama wouldn’t care, but still. Only button one button. In your Brooklyn apartment, you painted in your bedroom very late at night, after lesson planning and everything else. In the corner of the room is a canvas perched on an easel. Do it. On a night like this. Who knows when you’ll have another. Begin as though warning shots fired behind you. You are a body that could lose everything. You mix paint on a dusty glass tray on top of your desk. Immediate and direct, a kind of brown. Don’t slow down to consult old books and don’t you dare sketch and re-sketch. Forget layers; it’s the perspective you’re after. Never would you have started painting without a plan. The paintbrush, the unwashed random paintbrush moves from the tray to the canvas and you reach for the jar of other brushes.

Stand back. Scrape a smudge of paint off your nose and carry the brushes to the bathroom at the end of the hall. After a good washing, you line them up by size on a dark towel. When you move to the other house, you’ll have your own bathroom. You walk down the hall to Kurt’s room. On his desk sit four wooden blocks waiting to be chipped away for a printed moving announcement. Trial sketches sit tucked under one of the woodblocks. A picture of a simple house and the words, If you want to find Lena. Maybe the words could go around the house, a perfect square? The inside will announce your new address. Silk-screening, of course, would’ve been faster, but you like the lines and patterns of woodcut prints, especially on brown paper bags, which you’ll use for the card. Besides, you don’t feel like teaching Mama how to silkscreen. You consider some kind of cartoon cutout of Mama going from her house to yours, with a suitcase in hand. Turn around and wave to your old house, Mama. Unpack your suitcase, Mama. Tell everyone to stop by anytime, Mama. Let’s make soup for everyone, Mama. You take your sketchpad to Kurt’s couch and toss the ideas back and forth.

“Why in the world do all of the sketches feature me? I thought we were movin’ for your sake.” Suddenly Mama is sitting on Kurt’s desk, wearing your old overalls that you used to paint in when you were in college. You left them folded somewhere on your closet floor, but here they are, snapped over a purple button-down shirt with threadbare elbows. Material does that, giving way until it isn’t there anymore.