“Jawbone in Missouri” by Meghan Gilliss

17 October 2014 on Fiction   Tags:

In the hot center of the three-story barn, an oil furnace bucked and shuddered like an old bull up to his final dalliance. Without it, all of this—the piles of broken chairs, the shelves of dusty medicine bottles, the photographs of stiff-necked ladies—would be covered, Lanie imagined, by a skin of ice. On the top floor, her fingers showed slightly blue as she ran them along the tops of trunks, leaving her mark in the dust.

One thing, they decided. One thing to pack into the trunk of the Rabbit and keep, as a memento of their honeymoon across the north. She wanted many things, but their money had to be saved for Montreal, where two of his paychecks (her paychecks were put towards gas and food) would go towards three nights in a hotel room with organic cotton sheets, and a Jacuzzi to wash the smell of pine smoke from their bodies. They’d leave their sleeping bags and flashlights in the car, make love not just for the warmth of it.

“On your mark, get set, go,” she said.

They ran in opposite directions. A contest. She teetered in the doorway of a room stuffed to the ceiling with mouse-chewed lace. She glided through a room full of tools, of unrecognizable rusted bits and jagged blades. She felt her way through a vaulted space where the lights weren’t working, reached over a mound of tarnished trombones and carefully lifted up a marionette. Beneath a wooden face with heavy black eyebrows painted in a single stroke across its forehead and two red dots for cheeks, a yellow felt dress with green trim hung glued to the doll’s blocky shoulders. Its lank arms and legs were twisted back by stiff black strings in a matted nest that if untangled could make her dance.

She met her husband by the furnace, the doll behind her back.

“You first,” she said.

He grinned and offered up a jawbone, smooth and contoured like a hide. A row of seven blunt teeth rode the inner curve. “Cow,” her husband said. “Or moose?”

She turned without showing him the doll, dropped it into the nearest pile of junk.

“You win,” she said.

“I do?”

“Don’t gloat.”

He looked at her, waiting for a real answer, waiting for her to tell him why he was right. He was not as comfortable as she was with the inexplicable.

They parted with a crisp ten-dollar bill.

 

Lanie sat with the jawbone in her lap as they drove. She ran her fingers over its smoothness, trying to imagine the contact was pleasurable. Touching it was starting to make her teeth feel dry. She held it up. From a certain angle it resembled a Viking ship—she made sure Alan saw it too. She tried to imagine how it fit with the rest of its pieces. Buried together in a grave of mud some place, or strewn across the country, carried by cars, by people just like them—a hip bone in South Dakota, a femur in Arkansas?

Tick-sized cavities perforated the base of the craggy teeth. How suddenly the light got lost in those tiny spaces! Lanie reassured herself by looking out the window, fixing her eyes on God’s creation. One pine tree gave way to the next. The world was an unending copy of itself. Lanie put her hands on her knees, closed her eyes and felt the solidity of her bones. Alan was working the dial on the radio while he drove, trying to get a station.

“There’s nothing out here,” he said.

“You think?” Lanie said. Static filled the car, motes in the abyss. He’d been messing with the radio for ten minutes, trying to home in on a single crackling voice he thought he’d heard for a split-second. He turned it off.

The dryness in Lanie’s teeth was spreading. “Pull over,” she said.

Alan slowed the car and brought it to a careful stop on the narrow shoulder, even though there were no other cars on the long, straight road. It was just them, the road, and pines as far as they could fathom.

“Pop the trunk.”

Lanie unbuckled her seatbelt and stepped onto the pavement, holding the bottom edge of her wool sweater out, making a cradle for the bone. She hurried around the side of the car and dropped the bone into the open trunk without touching her fingers to it. She slammed the trunk shut. She slid back into her seat, relieved. The car was now full of sharp winter air.

Alan was trying to get a station again.

 

Their money spent quickly in Montreal. The Jacuzzi was broken and there was not even a smudge of sun behind the sky. They left a day early and on the way home took a wrong turn somewhere, crossed the border into South Dakota when they should have been entering Iowa. They stopped for more gas (more gas!). Nobody was assigning any blame. With one hand on the wheel, Alan groped with the other for a bottle that rolled back and forth across the floor behind his seat. Lanie’s breath fogged up her window as she watched the flatness sprawl. They puttered home on fumes.

Rather than tell Alan she didn’t want the jawbone in their house, Lanie simply placed it on the porch. She perched it next to the potted lemon tree, against the low wall, so it showed its Viking side to anyone coming up the steps. She tried to like it. She had wanted to like it. She managed, over time, to mostly forget it.

 

A year passed, then another. Lanie felt she was going to waste, and chided herself. “Get a hobby,” she grumbled into the mirror, holding a finger under her chin, examining her sharpened profile. Some days she felt that by the time he really looked at her again, really stopped to take her in, she’d be an old woman. She was twenty-nine. Alan worked long hours at the public defender’s office because it was the right thing to do. She couldn’t argue. She kept dinner warm late, called the office with reminders for him to come home.

She got pregnant. When he didn’t notice, she got rid of it—she didn’t want to be alone with a child. At the bakery at the end of their street, she comforted herself with one too many sticky buns. The baker, a tall Germanic man with girlish lips, brought them to her straight from the oven.

That night Lanie washed the dishes as her husband sat at the table and ate his re-heated lasagna. He’d stopped eating and was watching her. She fumbled a plate. She was washing dishes she’d already washed and set aside to dry. He lowered his eyes and finished his meal.

 

Then, a winter afternoon: A man’s breath warmed the back of her bare shoulder after the act. She lay on her side inside strong, relaxed arms. She wiped away the fog on the inside of the windowpane, revealing to her momentary surprise, her own back yard. The fingernails were short and gnarled and encrusted with hardened dough. She kissed them, and the yeast went straight to her head.

 

Lanie set a loaf of dense sourdough on the table at dinner. She was more talkative than usual with her husband. She took a real interest in his day. She listened to his answers, tried to follow his cases.

He didn’t know what questions to ask her back. She comforted herself with another hunk of bread, its hard crust slicing her knuckle as she tore it with her hands. She put her knuckle to her lips.

 

A summer day: A drive in the country, bare feet up on the warm dash, music from his youth blaring from the speakers. A sure hand gripping the inside of her thigh where a bar of sunlight crossed. She thought of the moment lasting forever, of her skin turning brown around the contour of his hand.

When she turned forty, he’d be sixty-seven.

He slid his hand along her thigh, worked his fingers into her shorts, made her jerk with pleasure as the van kicked gravel at the yellow ironweed along the road, as a hawk rode a current of air above the bluffs, ahead, where the river followed the bend. Her foot gave a final gentle kick against the dash.

“Marionette,” he said, pleased.

 

The jawbone appeared, the first time, in the laundry basket. The next time it was in the fridge. Lanie returned it, each time, to its place on the porch.

They ate their dinner as usual, right before bed, but more silently. “James got three,” was all her husband said one night, as if to give another, say-able reason for his mood. Lanie left him alone.

Late one afternoon she came home from a drive to find the jawbone in the shower, lounging in the soap rack, waiting for her to step naked through the curtains. It grinned at her, those seven teeth riding up the curve, as she tried to scrub herself clean. She showered like it wasn’t watching. She dressed and took the bone outside—she made herself touch it—and chucked it into the patch of ivy overtaking their narrow side yard. In bounds, she thought.

She scrawled out a note, Let’s leave the jawbone out of it, and stuck it to the fridge. But before he came home, she took it down, crumpled it, threw it away. Better to leave words out of it, too. Words would not be on her side. Maybe James did get three, but he did not get ten to fourteen.

They carried on. Then a dinnertime came and went; she kept things warm, then she packed the meal away. She went up to bed alone.

The jawbone waited on her pillow, its milky pallor set against the light blue sheet. She went to the basement and got a shovel. She went into the backyard and dug a hole, chopping roots in half with the blade. She loosened interfering rocks with the heel of her foot and pulled them out by hand. She smacked the mound of dirt she piled back on top of the bone with the flat back of the shovel. Cicadas buzzed. The thirteen-years and the seventeen-years in concert with each other. Blisters on the insides of her thumbs stung, giving her a small pleasure.

Inside the house she climbed the dark stairs. Alan was on the landing, looking out the open window at the moonlit yard where she’d been at work. He touched his finger to the screen, where a cicada husk latched onto it from the outside, then looked down at her a few steps beneath him.

He took her hands and ran her dirt-filled fingernails along his lips.

“Marionette,” he said.

Meghan Gilliss is a graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars and lives in Portland, Maine. She is a fellow of the Hewnoaks Artist Colony and a recipient of the 2014 Alexander Cappon Prize for Fiction. She has stories appearing in forthcoming issues of the journals New Letters and The Rattling Wall, among others. You can check in on her at meghangilliss.com.

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