There is the whoop of a siren, and suddenly red and blue lights play over the backs of her closed eyelids. She lies in bed. She knows it’s the cops. This is always how she wakes when they come to her father’s house in the woods. There will be talking, she knows. Her father will get mad, because he’s drunk and they are always on his ass, out to get him, because he knows his rights, especially his 2nd amendment, and he knows about the FEMA camps and the government listening to his phone conversations.
So he will yell and they will yell back and he will wave around one of the guns and then something will happen, and there will be the silent scuffle of limbs, heavy breathing, and cursing, and she will just lie there, in her bed, with the red and blue lights piercing through the thin fabric that covers her window and thrumming over her closed eyelids. They will take him into the back of their car and he will be gone for a day, maybe two. One time he was gone a week and she had been three days past the last box of cereal when he walked down the driveway, thin and short-haired, tears in his eyes, and wrapped his arms around her and promised to never leave again.
She hears his footsteps down the hallway. He walks heavily, drunk and angry. He runs a hand through his shoulder-length hair, slicking it back to his skull. His hair used to be black, but threads of grey have appeared in it like weeds in a garden. Not their garden, which has been overrun since before she could remember, but a nice garden, like her grandmother’s. Out in the hallway, she hears a click as her father stalks past her room. She knows it’s a gun. She hears the scrape of fabric as he stuffs the Raven .25 into the back of his jeans. She’s had this dream before.
Now she can hear the cops talking outside. A lady cop and a man cop. The lady cop is on the last legs of her good looks, blonde and tan, the wrinkles just beginning to show around her eyes. The man cop is not tall but he’s taller than her father, and thick like a John Deere tractor, with a head that sits right on top of his shoulders with only an inch or two allotted for a neck. He’s got little pig eyes. Macy knows all of this without looking.
She hears her father reach the end of the hallway, and the soft padding of his bare feet on the linoleum floor as he enters the kitchen. There is a smooching noise as he cranks open the freezer door and reaches inside to put his pale hands on the bottle of Evan Williams that is the freezer’s sole reliable occupant. A scraping noise as he unscrews the top, and the softest of glugs as he fills his mouth with the burning liquid. Lying beneath the quilt Grandma gave her, Macy opens her eyes just a slit.
The night is hot and dark. Tennessee feels like limbo in the summer, and the smallest breeze is like momentary heaven, but tonight the woods where Macy lives with her father are as still and silent as anything could ever be, and the trees don’t sway in the wind because there is none. Macy imagines this stillness to be like the time before God said: “Let there be light.” Nothing moves at all.
There is a crackle, and the man cop’s voice blares over the loudspeaker.
“Dalton Bisbee” the man cop’s voice says, fuzzy with static. “We know you’re armed. Put your weapons outside the door and come out with your hands up.”
The loudspeaker clicks off. In the kitchen, Macy can hear her father cough on the liquor, and then put the bottle down on the counter. He shuffles around for a few moments; she can almost smell his drunk-sweat from down the hall and through her bedroom door. Outside, the lady cop is talking to her radio, telling more police to come to the dirt lot outside the house where Macy and her father live. The cops will come, two or three cars in a line, hurtling down the shredded asphalt road to the woods where Dalton Bisbee’s house is, 25 miles south of Cookeville and 72 west of Chattanooga.
In the kitchen, her father has decided he is ready to die. The anger is welling up hot within him, filling his chest, rising up to his neck, seeping into his nostrils. It spreads, dark and black across the surface of his mind, like oil struck in the desert. Deep inside himself, Dalton knows this is a dream that he will have a thousand times. He moves like a train on tracks; reaching for the bottle again to fill his mouth, coughing, putting it back down, checking the clip in his handgun.
He watches himself do it. It’s not that he doesn’t want to do these things, but each movement seems predetermined, like simple math equations. Two plus two equals four. He holds the handgun down by his side, and takes a step towards the front door, and then another.
Outside, the lady cop turns to face the man cop in his seat behind the driver’s wheel. She brushes a tendril of wheat-blonde hair out of her eyes and says something to her partner. He turns his head away, trying to hide the black-purple welt on his left eye, even though she’s already seen it. It is the reason they are here.
Dalton Bisbee is a well-known violent drunk in a county full of men who drink till they can’t see and then beat their wives and crash their cars along lonely country roads. When they had gotten the call that Dalton was upsetting the customers at Players Sports Bar, the man cop, whose name was Houston had known exactly who the dispatcher was talking about. Houston had figured he could take the wiry old man. This was his first night riding with Trisha, the new lady cop. The way her ass swayed inside her state cop’s khakis made all the guys in the break room gibber like excited monkeys. This was his chance to impress her.
They rolled up to Whitney Ave and Third Street to see the crazy old man stomping around under the bar’s yellow awning. Houston, who had played tight end for Tusculum College before bone spurs ended his football days, and his scholarship two years short of a degree, told her to wait in the car. She gave him a shitty look that he blissfully ignored, and he stepped out of the car into the night and approached the old man, shoulders squared.
He called out to Dalton, and the old man had turned to face him. Houston reached out to put his hands on the old man, but there was an explosion of white light, like a star being born and then Houston woke up lying on his face in the parking lot, with Trisha kneeling besides him, asking him if he was ok. The old man had cracked him and then took off like a track star, Trisha informed him in an excruciatingly sympathetic tone of voice. She wanted to call for backup and an ambulance for Houston, but Houston grabbed her arm and told her not to because he was fine, even though his head shuddered with every pulse, and his words came out tangled and slow.
So here they were, sitting outside the old man’s shitty house, with its chipped white paint and children’s toys and broken furniture strewn all over the front porch like warnings to intruders. All Houston could think of was the sweet curve of Trisha’s behind in her khakis, and how warm the asphalt had felt on his face as he had woken. The shame was intolerable; it covered him like a suffocating blanket.
Inside her bedroom, Macy’s eyes are now open, and she stares up at the ceiling. In the dark the water stains morph and shift like dark clouds. She holds her breath. She hears the whisper of the front door knob turning in her father’s sweaty hands, and the creak as the door opens.
Dalton Bisbee steps out onto his porch. His eyes don’t go to the flashing lights of the cop car, but instead raise up to the tips of the trees against the night sky. The moon is very bright, but there are no stars. A breeze comes then, whistling around them, and all the trees sway as if the world as taking a breath. Dalton savors the breeze and the way it instantly turns cold the sweat on his brow and the back of his neck. He fills his lungs with the sweet cool air, and it tastes like freedom, and infinity. For a bare moment, he thinks of his daughter.
Then a piece of lead the size of the first joint of his pinky finger tears into him, and then another. Now he is falling, rolling across the splintered wood of the porch, and the air is filled with the sound of sirens as the backup arrives. His gun drops from his hands, which are suddenly made of plaster or rubber or wood and seem a hundred miles away, and it falls through a slit in the porch floor. He tries to reach for it, but his body is not working like it should. Despite himself, he sinks to the floor. Without his brain giving the order, he cradles himself with his arms. This is not how he wants to die.
There is shouting, the slamming and opening of car doors like a twenty-one-gun salute. There is the drumming of hard-soled shoes against the tight-packed dirt of the bare patch he thinks of as the parking lot, and they gather around him, looking down at him and shining flashlights on him. The breeze comes again, stronger than before, and it’s a small relief. Dalton has spent his whole life suffocating in the heat; at least he won’t die that way.
A long time passes. They take him away to a place where harsh bright lights lay bare every centimeter of his soul. After that, there is an endless time in a dark box, which is very loud, where he lies down for an eternity dreaming of this night. Sometimes he thinks of Macy.
* * *
Macy tells some of this to the boy she likes, sitting in lawn chairs in the backyard of the Alpha Sigma Zeta house. She’s older now, and has taken after her mother in looks, or so her Grandma says. Her skin is the coffee of her mothers with the milk of her fathers. Her features are wide, her nose is broad, but her eyes, set far apart on her face like a deer’s, are green like his. She runs track and has a hard stomach, she’s built strongly in the shoulders and her chest is broad with flat breasts that hang down and bother her deeply.
When she laughs, she is beautiful, and this boy makes her laugh. He is slight and pale and has a mop of lank black hair that he is constantly brushing out of his face, and he gets off on her chortling, and the way she throws her head back to reveal a perfect C of white teeth when he says something she thinks is funny. She’s easy to make laugh, and the way she tosses her head sends her breast-length curly blonde weave swaying. The boy she likes doesn’t even know what a weave is. He thinks this is her real hair, instead of the soapy smelling tightly-wound dry curls that she works a 3 days a week at the college library in order to pay for, another woman’s hair sown in every month.
Its 2AM, the party has ended, and somehow the conversation had turned to their parents. His, a college professor and a real estate agent. He asks her about her family, and it sort of comes out. Maybe it’s the alcohol. Macy doesn’t like to drink, but on that night she did, because just being around the boy she likes sends jittery butterflies through her body that make her shake and mix up her words. She tells him about her father, but leaves a lot out. She tells him about how her father used to drink and get in trouble, in between hits on a joint of tobacco and weed the boy keeps handing her.
She tells him about waking to the sound of a siren, and seeing the red-blue lights of the cop car on her wall. She doesn’t tell him about her dreams, about how she had seen her father get shot a hundred different nights, and how when she had awoken that one night she had known what was going to happen. She tells him about the kind of man her father was, but she leaves out the time he had left her alone in the house in the woods for a week.
He asks, as softly as he can, if she’s ok, and she says she is, which is mostly true, but she leaves out the dark figures that swirl and scurry at the edges of her vision, that increase with every smoke-filled breath she pulls from the joint he keeps handing her. These things scare her, but she wants so badly for him to like her.
Macy doesn’t know why she is telling him these things, she just does it. A force from outside her seems to push her forward. Her words seem prewritten as she says them, and the way the boy reacts to them seems scripted. She stops talking, and the gulf of silence threatens to swallow her up.
They sit in the backyard, facing the small forest that borders the west side of the campus. There is a cool wind blowing, and she savors the way it instantly makes cold the sweat on the back of her neck. The trees sway, and it is as if the world breathes. Uncomfortable, the boy puts his hand on her wrist. His palms are soft like she used to imagine clouds were before she realized they were just water vapor.
That night, he enters her, with the blue light of morning coming in through the binds of his room in the frat house. He does it unskillfully, but she smiles and coos through it, and feigns sleep afterwards. His bed smells like sweat and old beer, but he is vibrant and alive and pulls her like a magnet. She’s embarrassed by the things she wants him to do to her.
The next morning, he gets up with a hangover and, looking at her with one eye covered by the hand massaging his face, says that she should probably leave because he needs to get some work done. She finds her clothes, her underpants inexplicably on a shelf above the bed, gets dressed, and leaves. She’s heard people talk about The Walk of Shame but she is proud. Greg is well liked on campus, a big deal in his frat. The girls he is usually seen with are beautiful, and she walks in their footsteps.
He doesn’t text her for a long time, and she’s too much like a deer caught in the headlights to text him. She waits night and day. Long hours pass with her stomach rumbling, and she lets herself feel the hunger pains, because they drown out the worrying song in her head, that he will never call.
One night he texts her. It’s late, Friday night. People are out drinking. She’s in her room, alone with the glow of her computer screen. The phone lights up and she snaps to attention.
She makes herself wait a breathless minute before responding. He tells her to come over. She paints her face in a way she thinks he will like. She sometimes watches makeup tutorials on YouTube over and over again late at night, memorizing each tiny movement and stroke, so she can do them quickly. She puts on a white dress with lace embroidery that brings out the golden in her skin, but then smacks herself in the forehead hard enough that she sees white when she realizes how silly that is. This is a booty call, not a date. Stupid girl, stupid child, she mutters as she strips it off and puts on a pair of black tights and a grey t-shirt.
She looks at herself in the mirror and sees herself. Her broad face, wide set eyes, flat nose. Her skin is rough and pebbled on her cheeks, not like the girls in magazines. She looks like a 12-year-old with paint on her face. Her breath catches in her throat. She begins to shake. Macy puts a hand on her desk to steady herself.
Her cell phone buzzes against the hard wood of her bedside table. She staggers over and glances at the screen. “Where r u? :)?” He wants to know. “Coming!!! ;)” she texts him back. She puts on her shoes and leaves.
That night something bad happens. She stays till 6 in the morning and leaves. She’s limping slightly, and hopes no one sees her. She goes back to her dorm room and heads for the shower, which she turns up so hot that it burns her skin. Afterwards, swaddled only in a towel, she goes and sits on the edge of her twin bed. She doesn’t move for a very long time, but just stares at the wall.
Later that week she goes home, never to return. Her scholarship abandoned, she moves in with her Grandma, who pretends to not notice the slow swelling of her stomach, the increasing fullness of her breasts, until the last moment that it is reasonable to do so. She drives her grand-daughter to the doctor, and sits with her in the office, holding Macy’s hand which is soft and light brown, her own hand dark like old stained wood and gnarled like the roots of a tree. She knows better to ask questions of the girl who not so long ago used to paint with her fingers and tumble giggling across her living room floor.
One cold day in December she gives birth to a squalling baby boy, with light green eyes like hers, and what her grandmother calls a “high yellow” complexion. They sit together in the hospital room, the sweat of the birth still on Macy’s brow, and take turns holding her son. She decides to name him Derek. She tells her grandmother, who approves. She doesn’t tell her grandmother that in her head she has named him Dalton, after his grandfather. Her grandmother never talks about Dalton, and neither does she.
Derek grows up, long and strong and with a vicious streak that terrifies Macy. He’s tall, with an ugly sprinkling of orange-brown freckles across his cheeks and forehead, and broad shoulders. By age 17 his chest is inscribed with rough tattoos; bible verses and friend’s names and pot leaves and hands clasped in prayer. Still, she sees good in him, because it’s her nature to find grace in ugly men. She thinks of him for the wide smile that splits his face when he is happy, and the way he still buries his forehead in her shoulder like a little boy when he hugs her.
* * *
It’s a freezing night in February when the cops come for the last time. Snow is falling in the darkness, and all is quiet except for the rising and falling of the wind. Macy wakes like she always does, to the fear in her chest. She knows before she can hear the sound of their tires in the snow, or see the red and blue lights reflected on the walls of her bedroom. Something is coming.
She rises, and walks to the window. Outside is a swirling mess of snow she wants no part of, lit yellow by the streetlights. She peers out intently, pressing her forehead up against the cold glass of the window. Her eyes are not as good anymore, she needs her glasses but they are in the dresser, which at this very moment feels very far away. For some reason, she needs to be standing, looking out this window right now. It’s happening.
Derek comes out of the storm, his walk belligerent. She knows his affected limp before she can see his face. She wishes he wouldn’t walk like that, it makes him look like a thug. He’s wearing an orange hoodie and baggy dark-blue jeans with rhinestones on them. She can’t see his face, but she knows how he moves, his mock limping crip-walk.
Derek is swimming in a sea of alcohol, and brutal gangster rap is leaking out of his cheap white iPod headphones. He’s too deep into the bottle of Ciroc that his friend James stole from the 711 to feel the cold. He relishes the scrape of the harsh wind against his face, blinking snowflakes from his eyes. Derek likes the discomfort. It feels strangely like home. Derek has always felt an ugliness within him. It’s part of why he can’t stand his mother, with her unfocused eyes and breathless, gentle speech. She lives in a cloud, he thinks to himself. Everything in her world is soft and bright. Not like mine.
Derek arrives at the same time the cops do. He sees the lights before he turns to see the squad car pulling up in the snow-covered driveway. He can’t see his mother, face pressed up against the glass, watching from inside her darkened room. The squad car door pops open and the fat white cop inside calls out to him.
Derek can’t make out the words underneath the thundering trap beat blasting out of his headphones, but it’s probably something like “Hey! Stop!” Derek curls his lip in derision. He has an iron in him that this fat white cop with his soft belly and man-tits will never know. Standing out there in the cold, with the blizzard winds rushing past his cheeks, Derek feels at one with the brewing storm. The cop steps out of the car, pulling his black parka tight around him. His partner, also fat and white and soft, stays in the car, his face lit blue by the light of the dashboard monitor.
Fuck. Derek yanks the white plastic earbuds out. Suddenly he is surrounded by the whistling of the brutal winter wind. The cop approaches him, still saying something. Maybe it’s the alcohol or the wind in his ears but Derek can’t understand him. He narrows his eyes and squints at him. The cop is half a foot shorter, and his pale cheeks are ruddy and red in the scouring wind.
“What?!” he says, half question half challenge.
The cop reaches forward to grab Derek, but he whisks his hand away from the fat white man’s fumbling grip. The cop says something, but Derek’s brain is not listening anymore, and the cop tries to grab him again. Derek dances away, the tension now rising in his shoulders and neck. The fat cop is so slow. Derek is only 17 years old but he’s 6’3 with long arms, and with the hair-trigger explosions of brutal violence that make a good street fighter. He has a quickness and a snap to the carved muscles of his shoulders and back, and when the cop reaches for him again he drops the fat middle-aged white man with an arcing left hand to the chin.
Alcohol and adrenaline have caused his vision to cave in on itself. He can only see what is directly in front of him, and when the cop drops and clatters his head against the frozen sidewalk, for a bare moment Derek feels alone in the blizzard. It is a wonderful feeling. This is his natural habitat, he thinks. He carries this violence around with him everywhere he goes, like he’s carrying a child, and now he gives bloody birth. He pulls a deep breath from the freezing air. It tastes sweet.
The other cop hurtles out of the car, with a pop as his door opens and then the slap of his boots against the pavement. There’s a gun in his hands as he runs around the squad car. Derek’s eyes meet his. This man is fat too, his eyes are small and piggish, but there is an iron to him. He is solid around the shoulders, and he has gnarled wrestler’s ears that puff out the sides of his head.
Good, thinks Derek. This one won’t go down as easily. As the second cop rounds the squad car with his gun rising, Derek puffs out his chest, and raises his chin defiantly. He welcomes death. Bring it. He howls something from deep within his chest that gets lost in the wind between him and the cop. Death and fire.
Derek Bisbee was the quickest boy in his gym class, and would have started on the football team if he had shown up to school more often, but he is not quick enough. As he pivots, his fluorescent sneakers scraping against the ice-covered pavement, and swings a great punch from the hip with every ounce of strength and anger in him, the cop levels his gun and shoots Derek in the chest. The bullet tears clean through him, narrowly missing the cheap wooden rosary he wears around his neck.
Macy watches the first shot rip through her son, and then another. He doesn’t look hurt, just surprised, till the cop shoots him again and he crumples to the ground. The cop is shouting, screaming all the while, but the words are lost in the roaring of the storm. The snow is thick at his feet. He places a boot on her fallen son, and with one hand grabs Derek’s wrists to cuff him. Macy watches with unfocused eyes as her son bleeds out.
She can tell the white cop who shot him is breathing hard, even through the swirling snow she can see his chest heaving in his thick black parka. He’s cuffed Derek’s hands behind his back now, and is speaking into the radio attached to the collar of his jacket. The other cop is sitting up now and holding his head, dazed. Macy watches all this with detachment..
As other squad cars begin to pull up, sirens wailing, Macy turns away from the window. She walks with soft slow steps to her bed, and turns and sits daintily at the edge. She swings her legs up and lies back into the mattress. She looks up at the ceiling above her head. She can see the red and blue lights flickering there. Her eyes are hollow now, with great dark circles of worry beneath them. Parts of her that used to be full and soft are now drawn and hard. Her hands are knobby and the skin is shiny like wood that’s been rubbed till it reflects light. She’s living her dream. Macy closes her eyes, and goes back to sleep.