Congratulations to the winner of the Whoosh! First Chapter Competition. Kristyn Bacon is a writer, expat, adventure traveller and athlete. She gets most of her inspiration from the cities she’s lived in and the countries she’s walked through. Her fiction and nonfiction pieces have been published in print and online. She currently lives in Berlin, Germany with her husband and dog.
He left everything to me. The apartment, the shares in the company, the rights to his music, and the safe under our bed full of gold, ecstasy, cash, and passports. He left me his motorcycle and the small sailboat in the harbor, and the two room apartment in Berlin where we first lived when we were married, in a neighborhood that used to be a ghetto, but then turned trendy, and the junkies held on until the very end. He left me all the clothes and shoes and the handcrafted furniture and the thick, huge carpets, and the free standing tub in our bedroom, and the long curtains, and the picture frames that were five feet tall bolted to the walls, and the paintings and sculptures that I made or that we collected, and the hanging lights and the fixed lights and the low, cheap pallet bed that we had slept on in Berlin, and then our guests slept on it here in Manhattan once we became and acquired everything.
He left me the friends and the dinner parties that went on until two in the morning and the clubs and the bars and the bartenders that knew us by name and hardly ever charged us for our drinks, but took some pills in exchange later when we went out dancing, and the subway that we took at five or six in the morning so I could take photographs. He left me all the computers he’d used, and all the code he’d written, and all the passwords to his bit-coins, which he told me not to sell. I’d never need to sell them, just give it time and I’d never need to sell anything again. He left me his first synthesizer, which he made out of orange crates and old car parts. He left me the photos I’d taken in Berlin and Croatia and Taiwan and New York and Texas and Canada, and every other place we’d been together.
He didn’t leave me much for family. My parents let me go when I was sixteen, and I was an only child in a family with a long line of heart disease, drug addiction, impotence, and alcoholism, so it was basically just me now. Michael had a string of step fathers, but they were long gone when he met me. That left his mother, who had hated me. Could you blame her? I was twenty when she met me, and sharp as knives chiseled down into pins. Michael was forty. She thought I was after his money. But there wasn’t much money then. Just that 600 square foot apartment in the ghetto with ready access to drugs, women, and techno, and some money for groceries and the Ubahn.
Michael’s mother died a year after I met him, which was ten months after we got married. I visited her in the hospital a few days after she got sick. She told me I was a child. Worse than a child. I was a teenager. I was too young to be with anyone. I needed to be by myself. I stayed calm. I smiled at her lovingly and told her she was right. I didn’t lose my temper. She was going to die. You don’t need a temper when you have death.
If she could have spoken at Michael’s funeral, she probably would have said I shortened his life. Without me, he could have lived another ten or twenty years. It was true. And she definitely would have said it. But thanks to all the husbands she had who wore her out and screamed at her and smacked her on the mouth and aged her ten times too fast, she most wonderfully could not.
So other than the dead mother, the property and the drugs and the money, all that Michael left me was a brother in law living out in the countryside in Texas. A week after the funeral, I got sick of the big, empty apartment, and the hospital bed that hummed at night, and all the people asking if they should come over. Don’t call and ask me to come over. I know you don’t want to. You just want to call and have me say no, and then you feel better. Don’t do that.
I rented a car and drove a thousand miles down the coast to Florida. I got some great cocaine in Miami. I parked the car at the beach and looked out at the water. I asked a man walking by if it was warm enough to swim. He said it was. He had gone swimming last week. Would I like to swim with him? I didn’t. And after talking to him, I didn’t want to sit there anymore. I didn’t want to drive, either, because of the coke. That’s not a great thing to do. I just drove really slowly on the busy roads and when I felt like I was going too fast, or if I started shaking, I’d pull off into a parking lot and look at the other cars going by. I liked fighting the coke. It made me feel strong. I made it to a motel and spent the night.
The next day I drove another thousand miles down and around the panhandle, through Alabama and Mississippi and Louisiana, all those fucked up, hot, heavy, forgotten places, and into Texas, with the rest of the coke in the glove compartment and the sad, itchy feeling to take it, and the same album playing for thirty hours straight. I needed the consistency. It helped me concentrate. I slept at another motel just over the border in Texas. There was no reason to stay in a motel. I could have stayed in a nice hotel. I had the money. But I didn’t think it was right. I didn’t want to be comfortable. I wanted that sick, itchy feeling from the rough sheets and the shitty chain lock on the door, just like I wanted it from the drugs. I slept in my clothes. I woke up the next day and showered and put on clean clothes and left the dirty ones on the floor in the bathroom. I got back in the car to drive the last eight hours to Richard’s estate in Adam County.
I got on a secondary road. It was flat and fast. One lane for me and one lane for the cars going in the other direction. Tall, dry wheat fields on my left and on my right, the same fields plowed with the wheat rolled in tight wheels ready to get sold. And then the cows and horses. The wild deer. The coyotes, crouching, seeing you when you saw them. And when I got far enough west, the slow hills and the grey red dirt and the cacti standing up or spreading out. I didn’t even need the cocaine. I didn’t need any music. I just drove through the desert thinking about Michael, and thinking if I stared at the road hard enough, I’d see him out of the corner of my eye sitting on the seat next to me.
At six, I turned off the road onto Richard’s property. The sun was getting low. Everything was turning yellow. If I looked hard enough, I could see the dust where the lizards had been. After a while, I saw the iron gate. I got out of the car and opened it. I got back in my car, drove through, stopped again and got out and closed the gate. I looked through the thick bars and tried to see the road. All I saw were the wild shrubs, the yellow sky, a few tall cacti, and some short, thin trees and dead sticks and dead grass and the heads of a few deer headed for the wire fence going around the property.
I got back in my car and drove another ten minutes to Richard’s small, flat house. His dogs were on the ground by the steps. The lights in his house were off. He was sitting on a chair by the door with a glass in his hand. Everything was exactly as it was when Michael and I drove away five years ago.
I sat there for a minute looking at him. He sat there looking at me. The dogs got up and the big one barked once and Richard said something to him. I opened the door and got out and closed the door.
‘Hi, Richard,’ I said, walking over to the porch.
‘Was the drive good?’
Richard didn’t look much like Michael. He was taller, and bigger, but the bigness was just from a fatness that men in the countryside in Texas had. His hair was darker and he wore it long. His clothes looked the same. He still wore the same big, hard, dark shoes. He needed those. If he walked around here in thin shoes, he’d get stabbed from the dried up grass seeds on the ground.
I pet the dogs and then sat down on the steps. I looked out at the horizon, like Richard was doing.
After a while, I said, ‘Your brother died.’
He was quiet for a moment and then said, ‘I know it.’
‘I sent you letters.’
‘I got them.’
I nodded. I looked out over the desert and then said, ‘I sent you all the legal papers.’
‘I guess they’re still in the mail.’
‘I sent them next day.’ He didn’t say anything. ‘He left you half of everything,’ I lied. I turned back to look at him. He was looking at me.
‘I don’t need it.’
‘Well it’s yours.’
The big dog came and sat on the steps with me and put his paw on my lap. I pet him. We sat for a while looking out at the country. The crickets were out. The bats were out. It was almost completely dark. Richard could do that to me. He could calm me down and keep me quiet and easy. That’s why I only last saw him five years ago. I didn’t want to be easy or quiet.
‘You getting hungry?’ he asked.
He called the dogs in and held the door open for them and me and then followed me inside.
I had trouble falling asleep that night. I was staying in a small room in the back of the house on a pull out couch. This was supposed to be the guest room. Our guest room had a queen sized bed and fresh sheets and curtains. And there was a bathroom in it. And there was a nightstand with a lamp on either side of the bed. Think about any magazine picture of any bedroom you’ve ever seen. That’s what it looked like. This room looked like a dorm room. Worse than a dorm room. A junkie’s room once he finally got off the streets. A teenage boy who had no hope of ever sleeping with a living, breathing woman. His room. There were no curtains. God, it was bright. The moon was shining right in my face. It was a full moon. It was a lot of moon. I felt like a vampire.
I could hear everything. Every coyote and every owl and even the bats. I could hear them flapping their wings and brushing up against the house. I could hear their sonar. I could hear the cactus grow. I kept turning over on the bed. I kept thinking that Richard was hearing every move I made. I tried to be quiet. But then I thought he’d hear my thoughts.
I just lay there with my eyes closed, thinking about what I was going to do with the apartment in New York. Was I going to go back there? If not, where was I going to go? What would I do with my furniture, and my clothes, and my things? It was a loop running in my mind until New York turned into the desert and my apartment became Richard’s house, and I was pushing his old, faded, sunken couch out onto the porch and then attaching it by rope to my car and dragging it down to the highway and leaving it there next to a stack of boxes and his lamp, and his table, and this bed, and one of the dogs, the small one, and the rental car, and all of his clothes, Richard’s and Mike’s . . . .
. . . . Until the moon moved to the other end of the house and it was dark and quiet and I was asleep.
It was full day when I woke up. I felt great. I felt like ten thousand dollars in 1965. I didn’t even have morning breath. A three thousand mile drive to the desert will do that to you.
The sun was full and high. The room was hot. I just had a sheet over my body and I was sweating. I got up and showered and put on clean clothes. I didn’t have many left. I went out to the living area but it was empty. Richard was on the porch. I went out and said good morning. He turned to look at me and then turned back to look at whatever he was looking at before I got there.
‘It’s the afternoon,’ he said.
‘Did you sleep good?’
I went down a step on the porch to face him and said yes.
‘Very good,’ he said.
He was having a whiskey. He sipped it and asked me if I was going to sit or not. I asked him where I should sit. He said there was a chair inside. I went in and got a chair and started to bring it out but changed my mind. I put it back and got a glass of whiskey for myself. I brought the bottle out with me and refilled Richard’s glass.
‘It’s your whiskey.’
We sat watching the desert. A lizard crept by and when the dogs saw him, he slithered away faster than the big one could get to him.
‘You still working?’ I asked.
‘Yep.’ I waited for him to go on. He did. He said he’d taken the day off. I waited again but that was it. I asked him what he was working on. ‘Just writing something for one of the cable companies.’
‘Which cable company?’
‘Just one of them down here.’
‘Well. That’s good. Are you still working full time?’
‘Good.’ We sat quietly for a moment and then he asked me what I was doing for work. ‘I haven’t worked in years. I just write and paint and make some things. If I publish something, I’m happy. But I don’t have to.’
‘I think I made something for you once.’
‘Do you still have it?’
‘Oh. That’s OK. That doesn’t bother me. I made it for me.’
We sat quietly for a while. I tried not to care that he got rid of one of my painting. I tried to suppress it. You can’t tell a man in Texas what to do with his things.
‘This is good whiskey,’ I said.
‘Yes it is.’
‘Your place looks the same.’
‘You didn’t change anything.’
‘How about the dogs?’
He looked over at me and said, ‘What about the dogs?’
‘Are those the same dogs as the last time I was here?’
‘Oh. They look the same.’
That was really starting to piss me off. It was like everything I said was as valuable as the crushed pennies we used to get at the zoo, with an imprint of one of the animals on it, that cost a dollar to make.
‘Well if they’re not the same dogs,’ I said, but had nowhere really to go with that sentence. I started over. ‘Where did you get them?’
‘In a shelter?’
‘From a breeder?’
‘Just off the street?’ He looked at me again. I asked if he was going to tell me or if I should keep guessing.
He didn’t say anything for a while. He just sat there looking at the dogs. Finally he said, ‘They’re the same dogs.’
I stood up and said Christ and went for a walk around the house. I was barefoot. I stepped on a lot of those fucking dried up grass seeds. God, I hated them. They were sharp as hell, and fat, and they had spikes on every goddamned side. The big dog was following me. Whenever I stopped to take out one of the grass seeds, he would stop, too, and look up at me and wait for me to go again. I was sick of it by the time I got halfway around the house, but the genius who made the place didn’t put in a back door, so I had to either walk back or just keep going around the whole stupid house. It was a lot bigger then. I kept walking and passed my small, sick room. The windows were filthy. I got back to the porch and went in. I went into the kitchen and started making something to eat. He had shit for food. All he had was dried food or frozen food. He didn’t have anything fresh or green or anything of quality. Just substance. Just brown calories. I cooked the frozen vegetables and some of the dried meats he had and lots of salt and pepper, and baked the dry bread with butter and garlic powder. It was shit. It was worse than what we ate in Poland. It was worse than what we ate in Hungary. God, I wanted to go back to my kitchen in New YORK, and go through my fridge and take out all the beautiful, big, deep vegetables and go through my books and make a gorgeous green something, with fresh garlic bread and a deep orange salad.
But Richard wouldn’t eat that. He didn’t like orange or green food. He liked brown and beige food.
It got dark and the food was ready. We ate in silence. I had a lot of that brown whiskey.
I didn’t know if I should say anything once we finished eating. I wanted to get up and leave the room but it wasn’t really my room to leave. I just looked at Richard. He was caressing his drink.
‘So,’ he said. ‘How long are you thinking of staying?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘It was a long drive.’
He was looking at me across the table. He was looking at me the way he’d looked at the dogs. Like he was trying to remember or trying to forget where I came from. ‘You shouldn’t make that trip again in the same week.’
‘So maybe another week.’
We sat quietly again. Listening to a clock ticking. Listening to the lizards flipping their tails in the dust. Just when I was thinking about saying, Well, goodnight, he said, ‘Doesn’t look like you have enough clothes for a week.’
‘I guess I could buy some,’ I said.
‘You’re not gonna like anything in town.’
‘I’ll go to El Paso.’
‘I came down here by myself.’
‘Yeah. I know how you got here.’
I put my glass down and said, ‘What does that mean?’
He looked at me and said, ‘It means, I know how you got here.’
‘Fine,’ I said. ‘I’ll just go back.’
He got up and went to his room, and left me sitting there staring at his empty glass and his empty plate. I sat there for a while until I thought of something I could do that would be most annoying to him, which was put his plate and glass on the floor and let the dogs lick it clean, but that wasn’t enough, so I poured some of his whiskey into the glass for the dogs and then took the rest of the bottle into my loud, bright room and drank as much as I could within my limits, which was sadly not much, and then left the bottle on my windowsill outside to fill with those nasty little fruit flies.
When I woke up it was hot. I wasn’t hungover. That whiskey was fantastic. Not cheap. When you drink whiskey like that, you don’t wake up hungover. You wake up drunk. I went into the kitchen and made myself a strong cup of coffee. It tasted fantastic. It tasted like some Colombian kid walked all the way up through Central America and Mexico and then the long way through Texas to crack open those berries and dig the beans out for me. God. God, I love whiskey.
I went back into my room, got dressed, packed my sad little bag, put on my shoes and walked out onto the porch. I said bye to the dogs. I said bye to the lizards. I got in the car and drove down the driveway to the gate. I sat in the car for a while looking at it. It was a big iron gate. It looked a lot like Richard. It looked like it was born a gate just like Richard was born a man. I could pound my fists on that gate all day and all it would do was hurt. And if I did it to Richard, pounded on him all day and all week, it would feel the same. I looked away from the gate and into the desert. God. He really picked a place to live. He really did.
I got out of the car and opened the gate. I closed it again and got back in my car. I drove back to the house.
I went upstairs to Richard’s room. He was working at the computer. I said I was ready to leave but the gate was locked.
He kept looking at the computer and said, ‘I never lock that gate.’
‘I just drove there and back. Did I do that for nothing?’
‘Richard, the gate is locked. Please open it so I can leave.’
He stood up and walked over to me and stopped in front of me. He looked at me and then walked past me and went down the stairs. I followed him. He went out onto the porch and stood there looking at my car.
I waited a moment and then said, ‘Do you have the key?’
‘There is no key.’
‘Well can you open it please?’
‘I never lock the gate.’
‘It won’t open.’
He kept looking at my car and then said, ‘I don’t want to get in that car.’
‘Then we can take yours.’
‘I don’t want to get in a car with you.’
He stepped off the porch and started walking down the road. I should have just given up, and gotten in the car and driven away. I didn’t really know what I was doing anyway. There was no real goal. I wanted the gate to be locked and it wasn’t.
I followed after him. See what that man does to me? He takes all the whiskey out of my head and puts it in my feet. I walked after him.
It was a bad walk. I was sweating from the heat and my feet kept slipping out of my sandals. Sometimes I’d slip out of my sandal and step on a grass seed. I had to keep stopping and bending down. The dust from the road was covering my feet. It didn’t dry up the sweat. It just made a red paste that I slipped on, and my foot slipped and hit the dirt road. The whole time I had to watch Richard in front of me, walking with his hands at his sides and the dogs at his heels and his head held straight so he could look around at the things he’d acquired in his life. The Saguaro and the Peyote and the angry Yucca, which were in bloom, and the Aloe Vera that were growing as wide as my car. The wheat plants that grew wild from the seeds that blew by. The barrel cactus, the jumping cholla, the Joshua trees.
I walked a bit faster to catch up to him, and then I ran a bit. I caught up to him.
‘Richard. Richard, my feet hurt.’
He stopped and looked at me. He looked down at my feet. ‘Those are shit shoes,’ he said.
He bent down, took off his shoes, lay them in front of me, and then turned and kept walking. I put his shoes on. They were very big. I was walking much slower. But my feet didn’t hurt.
I made it to the gate a little while after Richard. He was leaning into it and looking out like I had done two days before. Looking for the road. I did the same. I couldn’t see it. The gate was hot from the sun. I couldn’t lean into it like Richard did. It burned my skin.
‘I never lock this gate,’ he said.
I was quiet for a moment. I didn’t know what to say. ‘Why did you start?’ I asked.
‘I don’t know. You came down, and I guess I thought . . . . ’
A bird flew by and landed in the brush. A few moments later we saw him rush across the road.
Richard turned to me and said, ‘Look. Why don’t you stay the week, like we said.’
I waited a moment before saying okay.
‘Alright,’ he said. He looked back towards the highway. I looked at him. I wondered about the gate. I wondered if he was lying for me or if I was lying for him. He looked back at me and said, ‘Why don’t … Why don’t you stay the summer.’
That was a good offer. That was a better offer than I’d ever gotten from the galleries, or publishers, or even the wealthy men who liked me even though I was already married to Michael. The last offer I had that was that good was when Michael asked me ten years ago to be his wife and take everything he had and make it more beautiful and lighter and warm.
‘OK,’ I said. ‘I’ll stay the summer.’
We walked back to the house. Richard went up to his room to work and I stayed on the porch looking at my phone, thinking the only person I wanted to call to tell the news was Michael.