“It’s Still Farther Than You Think” by Emily Varnell

21 February 2020 on Blog, Fiction   Tags: ,

Marianne’s palms stuck when she pressed her hands to the red laminate table. Orange juice, she guessed, from some boy dumping over one of those curvy bottles, too excited as he ripped into his burger. She imagined pudgy fingers trying to save fries from flying into laps. But they could be skinny fingers, she reminded herself. They could be medium-sized fingers. People had those. And the kid could be a girl, not a boy. A girl with boney elbows slipping out from under her and hitting the tray, sending the half-empty bottle bouncing from the table to the floor with a hollow, musical ping. An adult swiping with a paper bag to clean the spray, leaving behind little rows of liquid that dried clear, invisible.

“Napkin?”

“Nah.”

Don moved to pull his phone from his back pocket, arching his back and pushing his stomach into the edge of the table. They were the only ones dining in at the Carl’s Jr. Two groups of travelers had passed through and ordered their coffee and morning fries, and Marianne had felt their eyes on her as they pushed open the door, understanding the kind of people she and Don were in one glance. She knew they wondered how many times the woman with big breasts and the man with a bowling ball stomach spent their mornings in this place. They would not be wrong if they figured two or three times a week. They would not be wrong if they figured the booth felt more like a dining room than the folding table and chairs in the couple’s trailer. And if they walked out of the Carl’s Jr. into the adjacent Love’s to use a toilet in one of the largest bathrooms in the state or buy rock candy and jerky sticks, if they saw the girl selling fake jewelry and pocketknives behind a plexiglass case and figured she was a distantly removed-relative of that man and woman in the restaurant, they would not be wrong about that, either.  

Marianne had not changed out of the shirt she’d slept in. She knew there was a large, brownish stain on the back of her right shoulder that these travelers noticed as they passed behind her. Her shorts were clean, though. Her socks too, her underwear. Just the t-shirt was dirty. She could live with that. Anyone could live with that. She looked like she was on a road trip, she told herself. She looked like everyone else.

Ah, but her bra. That was the dirtiest of all. She had been unable to change it for the past three days. Folded and taped inside the left cup was the letter from Renee. She could feel a corner prodding her nipple. This morning she had noticed the paper turning yellow from her sweat. At some point she would have to remove it.

She smoothed her ponytail with one hand and tried not to think about her appearance. Since her mother’s death, it had not bothered her, the presence of her clothes, her hair, her weight. But with the arrival of the letter, she thought of herself constantly, even though on that same day she had been told— no, ordered— to embrace these things as they were. The morning Renee’s letter came, she had come across a demonstration, something that must have originated in Marfa or one of those other tourist towns, a few dozen people chanting in front of Paisano Pete about freeing brown women’s bodies from expectations and accepting their bellies and black arm hair. Marianne did not recognize any of the protestors. She assumed this was their last stop, the big finale in the big city in front of the big roadrunner statue, guaranteed to grab everyone’s attention. And in her current state and in light of all she had learned, Marianne had walked toward them.

They had mistaken her, with her tan skin and black hair and dark eyes, as one of them, pulling her in, showering her with positivity. Marianne let them make her feel good about herself, even though she should not have been there. She let them shove a poster into her free hand, let the shouts and chants wash over her, while she clutched Renee’s letter in the other.

The letter was written on a ripped piece of stationery from a Marriott in San Antonio. Marianne could not remember the last time she had received a handwritten letter, and here was her sister, writing her one. NO CELL PHONES, the stationary shouted in Renee’s tense handwriting, so Marianne had rushed to the only payphone in town, all the way across the railroad tracks, past the high school and the Baptist church, and called the hotel. It took three tries before Renee picked up. Renee had then explained, in one breath, that they couldn’t use their cell phones to discuss this, since her Michael had met someone in prison who knew how to track people’s text messages and record people’s conversations and a whole slew of things that probably weren’t actually possible, but they should be careful all the same. Marianne did not understand how using a hotel room phone and a payphone would be any different, how Michael would not be able to track that, how Michael could have even answered the room phone himself, but such questions might put Renee off, even make Renee hang up on her. And Marianne could not allow that.  

Marianne had one week to get the plane ticket money together. They were flying out Wednesday. In one day, out the next.

That fast? Marianne had said.

Yep, Renee had said. Doctor okay’ed it. Well, they did for Lee Anna, so why should I be any different?

You sure you want this?

One hundred percent.

And for the first time since her mother died, Renee’s panicked whispers and the protestors’ chants ringing in her ears, Marianne went home and stood in front of the mirror and assessed herself.

The bell on the restaurant doors dinged, and Marianne watched a boy and a woman walk up to the counter. The woman wore an athletic tank top and loose shorts. Real road trip clothes. Marianne looked out the window and saw a man, the husband, filling up at a pump, and the daughter walking across the parking lot, her arms crossed tight. Growing up, Renee had always looked at Marianne like that, arms crossed, hard eyes, whenever Marianne took several dollars from their mother’s purse, even after Marianne had bought the Little Debbie cakes or the shiny, strawberry lip gloss they both wanted. Funny that Marianne didn’t have to steal anymore, and Renee often did. Only when Michael was in jail, though. The rest of the time, the two of them managed to spend every cent he earned.  

“You get fries?” Don asked.

“What?”

“Did you order fries?”

“No.”

“Why?”

“It’s nine in the mornin’.”

“Never stopped you before.”

Marianne did not look at Don and continued to watch the family at the counter. The boy ordered a double stack. The cashier nodded each time one of them spoke. It was the same cashier who had taken Marianne’s order, her biscuit minus the gravy. He was a new hire, JEREMIAH written big and childish on his nametag. A grey tooth showed when he smiled. He probably wasn’t twenty-five and already had a dead tooth.

She wondered where Neil was. She had not seen him behind the counter, though she had told him the day before that they were coming, that she was going to ask for the money. She had wanted him there to witness it, to keep Don civil in a public place.

Just in case things get bad, she had said to Neil. I don’t want Renee gettin’ on her high horse with me showin’ up with a black eye.

I’ve given you the money, Neil had replied, sitting on his brown, broken couch. You mean you’re askin’ for permission.

Yeah, by askin’ for money. And he’s givin’ me the plane money. You’re just givin’ me the rest. For everything else, Marianne said, before taking a drag from the pipe.

You’ll have to stop this soon. You’ll have to stop real quick.

 I know, I know, she said, closing her eyes and falling back and breathing in the Febreeze and sweat and wet dog smell of the couch. Wet dog. Neil didn’t have a dog, but that couch always smelled like some hairy beast had rolled itself in a ditch before rolling itself all over the brown cushions. Maybe that’s what she should do. Just get a dog. Let Neil keep it in his trailer. Yes, Neil really was in love with her. Sometimes, she felt guilty about it.

Don watched her watching Jeremiah.

“Somethin’s off about him,” he said.

“Yes,” she said.

“Think he’s got somethin’ going on?”

“Maybe. Yeah, probably.”

The vinyl booth seat stuck to her thighs. Marianne looked again to the parking lot with the twenty gas pumps, the sun heating up the black asphalt. The truck stop was a five-minute drive from their trailer. She hated that short drive home. If she could, Marianne would stay at the restaurant until darkness shrouded the short buildings and the planted trees, and the dry desert landscape rose back up with the sun in the morning.

Jeremiah with his grey tooth walked up and placed a crowded tray on the red tabletop.

“Need anything else? Neil says y’all’re regulars.”

Jeremiah smiled hard, and Marianne looked past him and saw Neil at the register, avoiding her gaze. Neil Garland, the manager of the Carl’s Jr. and the owner of the plot at the end of their cul-de-sac, the most coveted square in Yucca Flower Estates, with two trees giving shade to the porch Neil had built off the back end of his trailer. Marianne could see the sweat on his broad, wrinkled forehead. She could taste it. Lick it off, as she’d done only the day before, higher than she’d been since her teens, on that brown, broken couch in Neil’s dark living room, hours before Don came back from the drill site, before she had to tell him about the letter and the trip to California.

She had told only Neil of the other plans, of the thoughts that had emerged as she stood with the chanters in front of Paisano Pete. She would tell Renee, too, of course, but not until she had gotten Renee out of Texas and away from Michael. If she did this, she and Renee would be gone for a while. Six months, if everything went right. Six months of no desert. Six months of palm trees and beer on the beach – for her anyway, maybe virgin daiquiris for Renee. She needed to figure out where they would be staying in Oceanside, so Neil knew where to send the money. She could have him pay her out upfront, take it all with her on the plane, but she did not really know how much it would cost to live in Oceanside for six months. And she still had to get Renee to agree to stay. She would, though, when Marianne told her everything was paid for. But Marianne did not know what Renee’s reaction would be when she told her the money was not coming from Don, that it was coming from someone else, that Marianne was risking everything, her life, for this. 

Marianne would try not to talk about Don during the trip. Renee would only bring up the bruises, as she always did. But Marianne already knew what she’d say when Renee did want to talk about him, when Renee tried to convince her to do otherwise. Don would never hurt a kid. Not even a girl. Remember, he had let her foster a couple teenagers, after she told him they would be reimbursed for the expenses? Yes, the kids had broken a window and put a hole in the ceiling, and one of them stole the rifle hidden behind the bed headrest. But Don had treated those kids like gold. It was only when he left for the rigs in Odessa that they began to turn on Marianne. A baby wouldn’t do that to her. And it wouldn’t matter if the baby wasn’t from her body. It would still be Marianne’s, have Marianne’s mannerisms, know Marianne’s favorite things.

When she had told Neil about the plan, he asked if he could come with her.

Don’t bring that baby back here, back to him, he had pleaded. Why go for so long just to come back? He was naked, and she was naked, and she was lying on top of him, her head resting in the large depression of his pigeon chest. He was smaller than Don, but he still attempted to hoist her up and press her against the wall, which Don had long since stopped trying to do. A whole four years her junior, this skinny Neil. Once, with her back to him, making her way to the couch, her eyes blurred from her high, he’d called her a cougar, and she’d turned around and slapped him. She refused to get in his bed, refused to go into his bedroom at the end of the trailer. She’d heard from Renee that once you entered the bed, it became impossible to leave. Marianne did not know if this was true for her, but she did not want to risk it. She was already risking more than she’d ever had. 

I’d be a better father, Neil had said, scratching his inner thigh.

No, Marianne had said. No, you would not.

She never planned to leave Don for Neil. Neil sold coke and crystal and sometimes heroin. Neil was young. Neil was supposed to be getting her pregnant, and he was failing at that. It was the only reason why she had started seeing him in October, during that first week Don went back to work after her mother died. Just to see, she had told herself, standing on Neil’s front porch, the fall wind whipping her hair around her face, if the problem was Don. But no, it seemed to be her alone.

She hadn’t left Don when things were real bad, and she wasn’t going to leave now, when things were about to get real good. So good, he would never slam her head against the tiled walls of the shower. And he had only done it that one time. Only a minor concussion, and blood from one ear down the side of her face.

You ain’t leavin’ because you can’t, Renee had whispered in the ear that hadn’t been wrapped in gauze. You know, Michael’s never hit me. Don’s gonna kill your ass, you idiot.

Michael’s the idiot, Marianne had said, looped up on oxytocin. Don was fifth in my class, remember? Don’s smart. Don’s rich. I don’t see you with no trailer. I got everything I need. And Mama loves Don. She loves him. She don’t love Michael.

When Renee started laughing, Marianne had cried so hard she threw up. 

But no, things were good now. Things were all right. She had not been to the hospital in three years. They were celebrating their fifteen-year anniversary in seven months. A testament of her strength. I am a strong woman, she had told a nurse who had once slipped her a note with her phone number on it.

Jeremiah lingered until Marianne said no, they did not need anything else, and Don nodded in agreement. The cashier ducked his head and left, hearing the welcome bell ring again. The family of four milled around the counter, refusing to sit at the tables while they waited. Marianne picked up her dry biscuit and broke it open. In truth, Marianne had already asked Don for the money once, when she went home after resting her head on Neil’s pigeon chest, and after Don had steadily pushed himself into her for an hour. The way he made love to her, slow and methodic every time he came home and every day for the weeks before he left again, Marianne knew he’d never cheated on her. No one knew Don like she did, what he liked, what he needed. She couldn’t imagine him putting up with another woman, with her talking and complaining and needing. No, Marianne was all he ever wanted.

It had been a good time to ask, because she had finished, which always put Don in a good mood. Her too, of course. And then Don had surprised her, being supportive of Renee’s decision. But she knew that Don hated Renee and Michael. Those two, and a kid? he had said. That would be like letting two chickens raise a snake. Kid would end up confused, demented.

But he had not given her the money for the plane ticket last night, which meant he was thinking it over. Changing his mind.

She watched him lift his breakfast sandwich to his mouth and waited for him to take a large bite.

“I need to buy the ticket today,” she said.

“How much?” Don asked.

“Not much,” Marianne said.

“Explain to me again why y’all need to go to California?”

“There’s not a close option.”

“Yeah, there is. Head on over the border. Cheap and fast as hell.” And he laughed with his mouth full.

“She heard they do it better there. She doesn’t want to die.”

“Y’all’re just trying to run away, you from me and her from that idiot.”

Marianne opened a butter packet and regretted not getting gravy. She set her knife down and looked at her husband, a piece of potato in his mustache. She turned her head to the family staring absently at the TV suspended above their heads. Another woman now stood at the counter, alone. She was oddly tall, looking close to six feet. Her legs were long and thin, almost like a child’s. She tucked her short brown hair behind her ears every few seconds as she spoke to Jeremiah. She then poured herself a Diet Coke from the drink machine and sat down at a table.

Marianne made eye contact with her, which the woman met with a half-grin, lifting up one side of her face. The woman did not seem lonely, but perhaps she was, all by herself this Thursday morning. A wrinkled shirt, tired eyes. The woman reminded Marianne of Renee, if Renee had been brought up in a wealthy suburb and had finished high school and gone to college and was with someone who did not spend more time in jail than out. Marianne always had that to hold over Renee, that Marianne’s man was clean, that he supported them, that he gave her stability, order, restraint. That without him, there would have been no one to take care of Mama, that Marianne would’ve had to wait tables or whatever else she could get with a GED all these years. No one would’ve washed Mama’s big feet or braided her hair like she liked or brought her whatever she wanted from the corner store. No one would’ve cleaned up all those Butterfinger wrappers. No one would’ve called Guinness World Records to see if Mama had eaten the most Butterfingers out of anyone in a single day, and seen Mama smile and laugh when it turned out someone had her beat. 

Yes, without Mama, without Don, Marianne would’ve had to try and find her place in this world. She only had to look at Renee to see how that would’ve turned out. No, she had a place. A caregiver, that’s what I am. I was a caregiver to Mama, and I am a caregiver to Don, and I will be a caregiver to my new baby.

Marianne turned back to her husband.

“But the rest is free, since Renee’ll pay for food and all.”

“Until she won’t. Which’ll happen at some point or other.”

“The point is to be with her.”

“To comfort her or change her mind?”

“Maybe both.”

“Better to just comfort.”

“I might change her mind.”

“Don’t.”

“What about the raise?” Marianne asked.

“What about it?”

“We could use it for this.”

“I like having some extra money.”

Marianne knew she needed an emotional reason to win Don over. It was the only way she had learned to persuade him, all the times of which she could count on her hand. The time she got him to drive her to Dallas and take her to the Reunion Tower for her 30th birthday. The time she got him to take her to the emergency room after he’d broken her arm with the folding chair in the dining room. Yes, she needed more than facts or logic, which he always found a way to dispute or invalidate. But Marianne was not known for thinking well on her feet. 

“It would make me happy.”

“Sure.”

“Yes,” she said. “Isn’t that what you’d like?”

“I have money. That’s what I like.”

He raised his voice with that final sentence, to the uncomfortable decibel that meant he was close to hitting her. She could feel Neil’s eyes on her from the counter. No one else had been talking in the restaurant, and no overhead music played to cover her and Don’s voices. Marianne watched the family at the counter, the daughter whispering something to her mother. The family’s order arrived, and they quickly gathered their food and themselves and left. The woman with short brown hair did not look up at them. She sat with one leg crossed over the other, and she stared off at nothing, and Marianne knew she had been listening since the beginning.

“I’m going to the bathroom,” Marianne said.

As Marianne walked past her table, the woman turned her face to Marianne with the same expression that had been on the faces of the protesting women. It was a look that claimed to know everything, and it was the look Renee had given Marianne in October when their mother died, and the look Renee had given her when she left two weeks after the funeral to get Michael from jail in San Antonio. Marianne saw how well kept the woman’s hair was, neatly trimmed and shiny in the light, probably from salon visits twice a month. Her skin was smooth, and she wore no makeup. Her shirt was wrinkled and scrunched from a seatbelt, and her eyes looked as if she had seen the sunrise that morning. Small breasts poked through her shirt, little pointed things that did not require a bra, that did not bring her down and trap her to the earth.

What is it like to have those breasts? Marianne wanted to ask the woman. Is that the key to happiness?

Well of course, the woman would say. Didn’t your mother teach you that?

Marianne looked away from the woman and walked into the bathroom and locked the door behind her. There was no mirror in the single stall. She should have walked over to the Love’s bathroom. Floor-length mirrors lined an entire wall. But Marianne did not want anyone else looking at her. Yes, this was better, her own little room that no one could enter without permission. She closed her eyes and wrapped her arms around her chest and felt her own skin, her own shape, all the way down to her thighs, knees, calves, feet.

Heavy. Just like her dead mother, unable to reach the telephone during the last minutes her heart gave out.

If she’d died in the summer, she’d have flies on her by now, Renee had said, looking at their mother’s body on the bed the three of them had slept on when Marianne and Renee were little. How the fuck are we gonna move her? Shit.

It was June now. She had to give up the drugs with Neil. Maybe not Neil entirely, but the drugs, yes. It would not be hard. She had done it before, for how many months? And this time would be even easier, with Renee’s baby keeping her busy, keeping her mind straight, focused. No, her baby. Marianne’s sweet little baby. And Don wouldn’t be mad at her, couldn’t be mad at her for staying in California six months, once she walked into the trailer with that baby in her arms. And then, when Don went off to the rigs, she would let Neil act the father, indulge him a little so she would never have to pay back any of the money. And then the baby would have two daddies, one that was stern and demanding and loving and smart, and one that was stupid, making Marianne’s baby ready for anything in life.

She just had to get through this conversation with Don. Once the morning was over, it was done. Finito. She would drop this bag into the toilet, this white bag hidden in the right cup of her bra, far away from Renee’s letter, this other thing that had been digging into her skin all morning. She would shit on it, flush it. Pat herself on the back.

Marianne washed her face and stuck it under the hand dryer. The hot air made her eyelids flicker. She wondered if the baby had eyelids yet. She knew it had fingernails. That was always something pregnant women talked about.

When Marianne walked out of the bathroom, she saw the back of the woman’s head, still at her table by the counter, tilted up as if looking over all the booths. Marianne saw herself going over to the woman, sitting down opposite the woman, asking for her name, where she was from. Marianne wanted to ask this beautiful stranger if someone was waiting for her in her car, if she had ordered breakfast for two, or if she really was alone on this Thursday morning in the Carl’s Jr. of Fort Stockton, Texas. Marianne wanted to tell this beautiful stranger about Don and Neil, and watch the woman’s eyes widen and her eyebrows wrinkle. Yes, they are men, Marianne would say, very solemn beneath the fading, yellow bruises on her arms. She wanted to tell this beautiful stranger about her new baby, and just how she was going to get it.

And this baby, my baby, will be comforted by these breasts. They will be the softest pillow it will ever know.

That’s a great plan, the woman would say, with a New York accent, or some other foreign accent. She was not allowed to be from Texas, or the South, or even the Midwest.

Great plan.

Don’t I know it. Don’t I know it.

Marianne went to the empty side of the woman’s table and leaned against the booth, her arms at her sides. Unthreatening, relaxed. I bring only wonder and amusement, Marianne thought.

“Off to Big Bend?” she asked.

“I am,” the woman said. “My first time.”

“It’s a beautiful place. Very different from here.”

“Y’all must go there often.”

“Oh, it’s still farther than you think.”

And the woman laughed, light and practiced. Marianne frowned. This was not a New York laugh. It was not a European laugh. The “y’all” gave you away, Marianne thought. And she remembered the women she had seen in the Reunion Tower, as the restaurant slowly spun over the city lights and Don ate bloody steak and she ate three desserts the size of her pinkie finger. As she ate her desserts, Marianne had watched the women around her, the ones with satin button-up shirts and clunky necklaces and the lobster spring rolls untouched on their plates. She figured they ate there two, three times a month. She figured they knew the hostess, maybe even Wolfgang Puck himself. She figured they were all somehow related.  

That was only two years ago. I am thirty-two years old, Marianne thought. And the coke died in Marianne’s veins, and she was suddenly aware of the scene she was making, all for Don and Neil.

“Well, I hope you enjoy it,” Marianne said.

“Is there anything I should see here?” the woman asked. “I’m trying to get all of West Texas in one swoop. I’ve heard it’s not hard to do.” And she laughed again.

“No,” Marianne said. “Well, there’s Paisano Pete. You won’t miss him. He’s before the turn to the park.”

“Who’s that?”

“You’ll see.”

Marianne went back to her table and her broken-up biscuit. It might be good, if she spread enough butter on it. Don had eaten his food and was looking at his phone, tapping forcefully. She stood for a moment, revealing the large brown stain on the back of her shirt to the restaurant, before fitting herself into the booth. She picked up four pink packets of sugar from the table, opened them, poured them into her sweet tea.

“Thought you were tryin’ to cut down,” Don said.

“Can’t resist,” she said, and took another drink.

***

Emily Varnell is a writer and outdoors enthusiast. Her work has previously appeared in The Blue Route, The Susquehanna Review, Proximity Magazine, and The Daily Post in Texas Monthly. She lives in Los Angeles. 

"Illuminate" is a silver gelatin print by Julia Forrest, a Brooklyn-based artist. She works strictly in film and prints in a darkroom she built in her apartment. Her own art has always been her top priority in life and in this digital world, she will continue to work with old processing. Julia is currently working as a teaching artist at the Brooklyn Museum, Medgar Evers College, USDAN Art Center, and Lehigh University. As an instructor, she thinks it is important to understand that a person can constantly stretch and push the boundaries of their ideas with whatever medium of art s/he chooses. Her goal is for her audience to not only enjoy learning about photography, but to see the world in an entirely new way and continue to develop a future interest in the arts.

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