Somewhere South of Wichita
Mesha Maren | Fiction
The online chat room forums warned against hugs. Too much too soon can be overwhelming, ruthann67 wrote, reminding readers that in federal prisons inmates, especially male inmates, generally had no positive physical contact for years and that adjusting to fond family interactions might prove difficult. This note was followed by a slew of grotesque comments from regent_majesty227 and oldschoolboy and others regarding the types of physical contact male inmates did have, comments that made Marlena squeeze her eyes shut and curl her tongue up so that the veiny underside of it lay flat against the roof of her mouth, her throat bulging with revulsion. She’d had to work quickly to steady her hand enough to move the mouse and bring that pesky little arrow over to the X in the corner of the screen, keeping her eyes half-glazed so as not to accidentally re-read any of those words and peering every few seconds over her shoulder to be sure that no one else in the nearly empty library had glimpsed the page.
After instances like that, Marlena was more careful. She started scanning the sidebar first for the names that had come to mean either trouble or advice. Ruthann67 and noIinteam! had great advice like Things To Talk About During Those First Few (Awkward) Days After Release: food, food, food! Making favorite foods and going out to eat at favorite restaurants can be a great way of (re)bonding.
Even if she had known enough about how to use the Internet, Marlena would never have dared to add her own comments but she was glad that other mothers kept at it, even after they were attacked, like that time that joy_forthemoment998 related the experience of families with a loved one serving time in prison to families with a loved one serving time in Iraq and rolled_gold_49 started a knockdown drag out fight about how all the current problems with the United States of America could be summed in that blank-blankety-blank comparison.
Marlena used the Internet at the public library in Scottsville. She didn’t own a computer and was afraid to use the one at work or go to the library in Hardin for fear that someone she knew would pop up behind her and see the websites she was reading—not that everyone there didn’t already know about Jason’s sentence, but some of those things she accidently scrolled across, some of the language—so after her shift at the Western State bank she drove one town over and entered the hushed-carpet-air-conditioned silence of the Chester Peabody Memorial Library.
Her first time there she hadn’t even considered using the computers, she’d come looking for books—research she’d decided she would tell the librarian—on how to help young men adjust after prison. In the parking lot she’d panicked though. Everything about her life, from the names she’d chosen for her children (not too strange but not too common) to her clothes, to the ornamental basket she kept on her desk at work (seasonally redecorated, just like the other bank tellers’) all of it was carefully chosen for its ability to not stand out, and so this moment, just thinking of saying those words young man in prison, made her feel as if she might as well be about to rip her blouse open and bare her dowdy Cottonelle-clad bosoms to everyone in sight. Maybe, it would have been better to do this in Hardin after all, there at least she had already suffered the shame of the public knowledge and rumors and this would not be new news (thank God Jason had been arrested and imprisoned out of state and that awful girl had not been the daughter of any local family).
The Scottsville librarian had, however, nodded and listened without asking any pryingly personal questions or giving a single look of revulsion, a fact that shocked Marlena and made her warm to the woman immediately. Marlena’s own mother had spoken openly of her dislike for teachers and librarians and Marlena wondered now if perhaps this tendency towards non-gossiping was the reason for this distaste, her mother having been a woman who daily lamented the loss of party line phones.
The librarian suggested Googling for information and had set Marlena up at one of the public-access computers where she sat for a full ten minutes staring at the empty white search bar, feeling strangled by the idea of typing those words and sending them smack out there into that carniverously public space. After a bit of scrambling though, she had found ruthann67, noIinteam and joy_forthemoment998 and all of their solid candid advice.
• • •
On the plane ride up from Oklahoma City, Marlena told the elderly woman in the seat next to her that she was visiting her son in Sioux Falls, nothing more. The woman had then pried out of her the fact that it would be a reunion after more than two years apart. I bet you just can’t wait to squeeze him with your own two arms, the woman had said and Marlena had pressed the bottom of her tongue against the roof of her mouth and stared out the window at the pillars of clouds. It was her first time flying and the thought that she was looking down on clouds made her blood zip around in her veins a little uncomfortably.
She arrived at the South Dakota State Penitentiary nearly a full hour early and in the large, almost-empty parking lot she shut the rental car’s engine off and looked down at her sweating hands and then at her arms. It was true, and kind of funny-sad, that hugging was what her arms would be best used for, large as they were, but not strong, not saggy exactly either, but puffy, chafing a little inside the sleeves of her purple poly-blend blouse. It had been a long time since she’d really looked with much focus at any particular part of her own body. After her pregnancies with Monica and Jason it had changed and then after her husband Daniel left to strike it rich in the Texas oilfields she’d quit trying to change it back. She’d never dated or married again and, she realized suddenly, with a jolt like nervous laughter rolling inside her, it had been years since she had hugged anyone, what with Monica living down in Houston now and, after all, not really being the physically affectionate type anyhow.
Marlena dropped the car keys in her lap and turned away from the steering wheel, holding her arms out in a circle before her and feeling again that jolt of shame. They were good arms for enveloping and drawing in, but also, yes, she had to admit, probably a little too overwhelming.
• • •
Inside, the man at the front desk informed Marlena that skirts were not allowed. Skirts? She squinted as if she must have heard him wrong and he pointed to a large plastic plaque on the wall beside the metal detector.
Visitor Regulations and Dress Code:
No personal items allowed beyond this point
(keys, purses, cellphones)
No tank-tops, sleeveless shirts, shorts, dresses or skirts.
“Oh,” Marlena said, smiling at the desk man, a middle-aged fellow with a childishly small head on top of a square stocky body. “I think they mean mini skirts.” She mouthed the words slowly, looking around the empty lobby as if she might find there an example of the type of scandalous skirt she was describing. “Certainly not . . . ” She brought her eyes down to the wide swath of floral fabric that covered her own thighs and knees and calves, clear down to her ankles. The skirt was, if anything, a little too grandmotherly even for her own usual taste, though she could still see why the soft cloud-like flowers had caught her eye when she had spotted it on the sale rack at Cato, the pattern looked like a memory of a British cottage by the seaside with a trellis of roses, though certainly she did not actually have such a memory, this trip being the first time she’d ever left Oklahoma, which is why she wanted to forge it into a sort of vacation for her and Jason, rent a car and drive back, stopping along the way.
“Do you plan to proceed? Do you even hear me?”
“Oh.” Marlena blushed; she’d done that flittering mind thing again, it had been happening to her at work a lot lately, in the middle of counting twenties she’d suddenly go off into an image of herself at Mount Rushmore, staring up at the regalness of those carvings with ruthann67 and joy_forthemoment998 on either side of her.
“They’re not my rules.”
“Oh, of course not.” Marlena nodded and as she marched out to the rental car and unpacked her suitcase—the single pair of slacks she had brought being, of course, all the way at the bottom, but thank God after all that she had packed them—and then as she marched inside to the public toilet to change and then back out to the car to replace her British-cottage-memory skirt inside the suitcase she repeated cheerily in her head, Well, it’s a good thing I always arrive early!
She said these same words out loud to the desk man as he waved her through the metal detector and in response he’d made a sort of honking sound in the back of his throat and shaken his head, and Marlena, standing frozen, arms akimbo, while the machine blinked and bonked around her, could feel his eyes on her and could feel the awkward fit of the slacks encasing her thick legs, the way they crumpled her panties up in the back and suddenly her mind was flitting again but in a bad way this time so that she pictured herself telling the man to shove off and mind his own business as ruthann67 and noIinteam! egged her on, standing there by her side as she told the man that he wasn’t much to look at himself, his head being too small for his body and his eyes too close set.
By the time she’d made it to the visiting room she’d managed to apologize mentally to the man, to her own mother, to Jesus, Mary and God and then, seated in a yellow plastic chair beside a vending machine, she kept on saying Hail Marys until her heart rate had gone back to normal.
• • •
Jason’s voice came bouncing down the hall. Before Marlena could even see him that familiar sing-song tone had reached inside her and scrambled her emotions. Pelt, no, belt . . . he was repeating something as he came into view, flanked on each side by a uniformed guard, his skin so pale that Marlena could see the dark roots of his whiskers there below the stubbly surface and all those inked tattoos standing out so starkly against the white-white skin of those muscled arms, arms that she had known to be very soft and a little chubby. That girl had had tattoos too, a whole bunch of them, and she hadn’t looked sixteen at all. The one time Marlena had met her she’d seemed young, sure, but not that young and what with all those tattoos and all that thick makeup you really couldn’t blame Jason for not knowing she was underage.
“—belt buckle belonged to my dad,” Jason told the man on his right.
Marlena couldn’t remember any belt buckle that Daniel had given Jason but then again she’d pretty much wiped out any and all memories of Daniel, paving over them with swaths of blank space as thick and even as a buttercream frosting, just like her home ec teacher had taught her, you can smooth the surface of almost any imperfection with a steady hand and enough frosting!
“I know I had it on me when you booked me and it was about the only thing I’ve got left that belonged to my dad.”
Marlena could hear him working his way up into a fight, it was familiar, that repetition in his words with increased fervor.
“Anything that was with you when you were processed in would have been stored with the rest of your belongings.”
Marlena stood, a little wobbly but ready to intervene before anything got too heated. God forbid, but somehow it seemed like it would be just her luck that at this last moment before he was to be released Jason would haul back and punch one of those cops or whatever they were, but, no . . . suddenly he was turning, staring straight at Marlena, and smiling like the whole thing was some private joke between them.
“Okay, okay, you know what?”
Marlena leaned forward on her tiptoes towards him as he spoke.
“That’s your Big Weight now,” he said. “You took something real important to me and now it’s your Big Weight to carry around.”
It took Marlena a long garbled minute to realize that he must not be talking to her.
• • •
In the passenger seat of the rented Suburban Jason looked strange and fuzzy in Marlena’s eyes, as if she were looking at him through some special lens, trying to match up the memory she’d had of a petulant moody man-boy with this now wide-eyed energized young man sitting beside her. Could he be on some sort of medication or drug? she wondered and then chastised herself. She should just be happy; he’d even given her a hug (unprompted!), a sort of sideways half-squeeze one-arm hug but a hug nonetheless!
As a part of her planned itinerary Marlena had picked out a nice steak house with great Yelp reviews that was not too far from the prison but it was a little early in the day for steak and Jason said he wanted to get as far away from that soul-sucking, individual-independence-shredding institution as he could. It hurt Marlena a little—caused a small, ragged tear in her good mood—not to go to the highly reviewed steak house, the one with “great ambience” and “old-fashioned style service,” but they could just eat at a Golden Corral later. Golden Corral was always good and they had only two days before Jason had to report to his parole officer back in Hardin and five hundred and eighty miles to drive.
Out the window wide fields stretched along both sides of the highway, yellow grass matted down like some kind of animal fur, and then off in the distance the slouch of dark pine hills.
“What’s ‘your Big Weight’ mean?” Marlena focused on the Honor Roll Student bumper sticker on the van in front of her as she spoke.
She glanced at Jason who was smiling widely.
“Yes! I mean no one ever asks, they just think you’re like weird or they heard you wrong or something. It’s a mental attitude, like karma. We’re always pushing boulders and some of that weight is good for us.” He lifted his left arm and flexed. “But you also gotta know when to let something go, not get bogged down.”
Were these sports slogans? Marlena wondered. Jason had never played a sport in his life, video games yes and those strange—what were they called? Dragons and Caves?—games, but never anything remotely physical or outdoorsy. Once, about five years after he’d left, Daniel had written home to the kids and Marlena had intercepted the letter. In his note to Jason, Daniel had asked what his favorite sports team was and if he’d started to get any hair around his pecker and as Marlena burned the letter in the kitchen sink she had felt a supreme satisfaction at the fact that Daniel had no idea what kind of kid his son was and hadn’t the slightest notion of how to connect with him.
“It’s all about the ifs, becoming an Individual Focused on Selfhood Success.”
Marlena turned the A.C. on high, Jason’s frantic exclamations seemed to have brought the temperature in the car up about ten degrees. “Ifs?”
“Doesn’t it sound a little ‘iffy’?” Marlena lilted her voice up to show that it was a joke, kind of. “I mean, as far as
acronyms go, maybe you should work on that one a little.”
“No, it’s not me.” Jason brought his fist down against the dashboard and Marlena swerved. “I didn’t come up with this.”
“It’s like a bodybuilding thing?” Marlena offered quickly.
“Your body is your cage unless you know how to control it, but it’s not about muscles, it’s about the muscle up inside your head. That’s what Man Up taught me, you gotta focus on yourself.”
They stopped for lunch in Pine Cross at a restaurant called Sal’s Lounge and as they entered the cavernous, carpeted dining room that smelled like a lifetime’s worth of unemptied ashtrays Marlena was glad that she didn’t have any way to look at the Yelp reviews because with this kind of place it was better not to know, better just to hope for the best!
They sat in a booth in the back of the room and Jason spread himself out, legs wide and elbows firmly planted on the table as he studied the menu. Something about the way he was sitting made Marlena’s brain itch, like she wanted to tell him to sit up but the truth was he wasn’t slouching like he used to, or pulling his knees up onto the seat. It was, if anything, the opposite sort of stance but somehow this new posture made her equally, if not more, nervous, this sort of smooth muscled ease that seemed perhaps a little lewd.
Marlena popped her head out of the booth to see if just maybe some nice waitress might be headed their way right then.
“Hey, relax, Mom.” Jason folded his menu and set it down but kept his elbows on the table. “You know what you wanna eat?”
“I was hoping to be told what the daily specials are.”
Jason pointed to a note on the front of the menu that read “Specials Available During Dinner Service Only.”
“Oh,” Marlena said and turned her attention back to the front of the room where a tired-looking young woman was walking towards them.
When the woman had reached their table Marlena ordered two large glasses of milk.
“Hey naw, make it just the one, and a large water for me, no ice.” Jason winked at the waitress and turned to face Marlena again. “Your body can’t process cow’s milk, it’s made for an animal with seven stomachs, it needs, you know, time to filter through and ruminate and we’re high octane, we run our fuel fast and get nothing out of most of it. We think just because we put something in ourselves that we’re gonna get something out of it but it takes a lot more work than that.”
Marlena wasn’t sure if they were still discussing milk, everything Jason said had started to sound like sports slogans again. “What about calcium?” she asked.
“Exactly! We think we can just come in contact with something’s got vitamins and minerals in it and bam we’re solid!”
Marlena watched the waitress walking back towards them. The way her breasts moved around inside her shirt, like two curious puppy heads, made Marlena wonder if she was even wearing a bra at all. It seemed like not wearing a bra would be against health regulations or something. Also, Marlena did not approve of the girl’s T-shirt which read I like my whiskey straight, my beer cold and my time spent at Rudy’s Buck Bar. If the girl was a lush there was nothing Marlena could do about it but she felt strongly that people, especially people working in customer service, had an obligation to stay anonymous and keep their personal, peculiar selves off at a safe distance.
Jason downed his water in one noisy gulp and the waitress looked at Marlena, pen and paper in hand and eyebrows raised.
“Well, what’s good here?” Marlena asked. “What do you recommend?”
“Naw, don’t do that.” Jason clattered his empty water glass down onto the tabletop. “They hate when you ask them that. Right?”
He looked to the girl and she shrugged, her breasts nosing up and down as she moved. Marlena attempted to direct her gaze away from the breasts but her eyes kept darting back just the way her brain had refreshed the images of those awful curse words from those chat forums.
“Just give her a roast beef sandwich,” Jason said. “You still like a good roast beef sandwich, right Ma? And for me, I’ll take two garden salads.”
“Two garden salads?” The waitress cocked her head.
“No, honey, order a steak or something. Whatever you want. My treat!” Marlena said, feeling foolish even as she mouthed the words, almost as if she were taunting Jason about his situation. It was all her treat, obviously, Jason having nothing, no money, no real skills, nothing but what she had arranged for him: this trip home and a free place to stay out on her uncle Larry’s farm (the only spot she could think to have him live that was 1,000 feet from all ‘schools, parks, daycares or anywhere that minors might congregate’).
“Okay, you know, actually make it two garden salads plus one Greek salad.”
“Salads?” Marlena hissed before the girl had even left the table.
Jason was unflustered. “Thank you so much.” He handed the menus to the waitress and then refocused on Marlena as if she were a small child who kept misunderstanding him. “I don’t mess with meat anymore. Slows you down, takes up too much energy. I gotta stay fast on my feet.”
“You don’t eat meat?”
“Pure vegetable energy.”
“But, you love ham.”
“Nah.” Jason leaned back in the booth and drummed his fingers across the table in a quick rhythm. “I love the clean strength of energy.”
“That’s not you,” Marlena blurted out before she’d even realized what she was saying. “I mean that’s not like—”
“There’s not just one you.”
Marlena leaned forward, her muscles tensing up more and more as Jason smiled and relaxed.
“There’s the you that loves ham, yeah sure, but then there’s—”
Marlena looked away. Jason kept talking but she couldn’t listen, his words sounded too strange, rehearsed or something, like the things that Daniel had said when he was slinking backwards out of their relationship.
“Do you still believe in God?” Marlena asked as she gripped her glass of milk and forced herself to turn back towards her son. When she looked up, Jason was smiling, all sparkly eyed at her.
• • •
The hotel that Marlena had reserved for their first night was in Fremont, Nebraska, but as it turned out, some ‘guys inside’ had told Jason about a Man Up group that met in Lincoln and he was pretty sure they were having a powwow that night.
“I made a reservation,” Marlena said.
“So we’ll cancel the reservation.”
“And what am I supposed to tell the man who made the reservation for me?”
“It’s a lucky day for somebody else who’s just dying to stay the night in Fremont, Nebraska.”
Marlena let her eyes slide out across the landscape of tawny fields and rumpled-bed-sheet clouds. Jason had remained steadfastly chipper all afternoon. She almost wished he would get upset, then at least she would have an excuse to ask him what was going on. She thought she’d been so prepared. The way that ruthann67 and noIinteam! had described it, she had expected a grumpy, nervous, possibly unresponsive Jason, not this opinionated sloganeer who turned down every idea she dreamed up. With her daughter, Monica, she was used to being ridiculed, but Jason had always been on her side. Monica was a slippery seal of a girl who Marlena did not understand and could not fathom having created. She was loud and beautiful and perfectly at home everywhere she went. But Jason had always been Marlena’s boy, fumbly and quiet, with an aversion to exercise, a penchant for afternoon talk shows and an understanding that rules were there to help everybody.
• • •
The Man Up powwow did not allow women. Marlena guessed that she should have known from the name but still somehow she had not imagined that she would be separated from Jason so soon. She wasn’t even sure if she should allow him to attend such a meeting alone, according to parole rules, but all she really knew was that he had to report to the officer in Hardin day after tomorrow, and so, in the Lincoln Community Center parking lot as the sun set behind a collage of concrete, she sat alone and let her mind wander over the possibility that Jason had turned gay. In many of the forums she had read, men had consistently commented on notes by ruthann67 etc., letting them know that despite their best efforts for a smooth transition, when they got out, their boys weren’t gonna want anything but pussy. Marlena tucked her tongue against the roof of her mouth as she thought about that word, her whole face puckering. But still, she almost wished that Jason would show some interest in girls or something.
• • •
That night, at the hotel pool, Marlena waited to enter the water until the young people had cleared out and a woman her own age in a tummy-hiding two-piece swimsuit slipped into the deep end. Let the kids have their fun first, Marlena thought, glancing every few moments over to see if Jason’s eyes lingered on the spaghetti straps of the young women’s bikinis, unsure if she would feel more relieved if he looked or if he didn’t. Either way she had to admit that this hotel was actually nicer than the one she had reserved previously. That one had a pool but no Jacuzzi-spa like the one that Jason was floating in (while muttering something to himself that Marlena couldn’t quite make out).
The woman in the tummy-hiding suit was a professor, in town for a conference she said. Marlena smiled at herself befriending librarians and teachers left and right.
“And what brings you here?” the professor asked.
“Oh, my son.” Marlena motioned over towards the Jacuzzi. “I’m picking up my son.”
She was in the midst of nodding a tentative ‘yes’—a montage of cap and gown images forming in her mind—when Jason’s voice boomed through the moist air. “No, I just finished two years in prison.”
The professor’s face moved swiftly through a series of expressions, landing on a small smile mixed with a look of painful surprise.
Marlena glanced away, the aqua water rocking and slurping around her. Her body felt too big and noticeable suddenly, like, even though she and the teacher were the only ones in the pool, her body was somehow taking up far more than its fair share of space. She wanted to separate from it, let this big, squishy form and this maybe-gay convict son become someone else’s problem while she floated off to the other hotel, the one they were supposed to be staying at.
“Oh, I see,” the teacher said and Marlena felt the distance ringing out between them, the little tendrils of commonality that they had begun to cultivate letting loose their grasps as the woman reached for her towel and muttered gotta get to bed.
• • •
A new day is a blank slate, a new chance to set the rudder straight, Marlena reminded herself at one a.m. She was on vacation in Nebraska with her son, she told herself, but the hotel room felt lonely and she could not sleep. The headlights from the highway circulated across the ceiling and the air conditioner chugged irregularly. She never felt lonely at home, but then again there she had her slippers lined up beside the nightstand, Miss Mittens snoring at the foot of the bed and she could trust each morning to begin in exactly the same way, with bran flakes and a mug of not-too-hot Constant Comment tea.
She sat up in the hotel bed and turned the T.V. on. A bald man was saying something about thousands of unrecycled plastic shopping bags and oil slicks and water access in India and Marlena tried to draw together the connections but all she could think of was Jason’s proclamations—we’re high octane, pure vegetable energy!—and she felt sure now that the earth must have started spinning too fast and she’d gotten off rhythm.
• • •
Throughout the day Jason stuck to his iceberg lettuce diet except for at breakfast where he ate only hard boiled eggs and orange juice, despite there being a delightful little Belgian waffle maker that the hotel made available for their use. Marlena tried not to comment but she couldn’t quite hide her disappointment, especially after Jason announced that he’d found another Man Up powwow he needed to attend in Wichita that evening.
“We’re staying in Windfield tonight,” Marlena said firmly. She’d done her research and, in addition to being a comfortable four-hour drive from Jason’s parole office, Windfield was also home to America’s deepest wishing well.
“I didn’t say we have to stay in Wichita.”
Jason’s hair was cut so short Marlena could see his glowing white scalp and below that she imagined she could see his brain working, excited but far too overheated. She wanted to tell him to take a few deep breaths. Jason used to be so even and quiet. Marlena had always appreciated that he’d had no need to draw attention to himself, in fact he hadn’t spoken a word until he was almost three.
The South Wichita Man Up meeting was held in the Gerald Rooker Community Recreational Center and it did not even begin until seven p.m., long after Marlena had imagined she would have already been checked into the Windfield Inn, exactly at the time in fact that she had hoped to be taking an after dinner stroll down to America’s deepest wishing well. Instead she was sitting in the rented Suburban alone again. Jason had suggested that she might want to go get coffee at a Denny’s but she didn’t like coffee and was nervous to drive around a strange city by herself.
The meeting went on longer than an hour though and eventually she had to pee. In the warped bathroom mirror of the rec center she found a reflection of a bland puffy-eyed woman heading towards the end of middle age and suddenly she was appalled at herself for allowing her son to pull the reins on this whole trip. While peeing she made up her mind to go get him immediately but afterwards in the echoing cinderblock hallways she realized that she was more than a little afraid of the idea of a room full of adult men—doing what exactly? Encouraging one another?
In the parked Suburban she must have fallen asleep (truly she had not slept well the night before) because there she was wavering into a dream-memory. It must have been the smells of the rec center and the sight of all that painted concrete. She was small again, smaller even than her sister who was a year younger than she, and the two of them were down inside an empty swimming pool, the turquoise walls swelling high on all sides and the domed roof of the dimly lit room above them like a lid or a cloud. Their father’s voice came from up there but she could not see him. All right I’ll be back girls, you want Fritos or pretzels? In the beginning, when he first started bringing them along on his janitorial shifts, he’d told his daughters elaborate tales about why they needed to help him with the cleaning instead of going to bed. The empty swimming pool was really the lair of the last living mermaid, a creature so shy she could not stand to be viewed and so she had shrunk herself into microscopicity and Marlena and Madeleine had to find her and convince her that she was worthy of being seen. Meanwhile, their father himself had to go not down the street to Mickey’s Bar (no! no!) but off to find that secret elixir that would bring the mermaid back into being. After a while he’d quit telling stories though and simply promised bags of chips and pretzel rings.
• • •
It was almost nine o’clock before Jason came back and by the time they’d arrived, groggy and grumpy, at the Windfield Inn it was after eleven. The man at the front desk held Marlena’s driver’s license up beside the computer screen and squinted at it for a long time before announcing that the reservation had been canceled.
“Canceled?” Marlena said, looking over her shoulder at Jason as if he might have arranged this.
The reservation was for a three o’clock in the afternoon check-in the man explained and there was a statewide basketball tournament in town that weekend.
“We’re full up and with people asking about vacancy all night,” he said. “I couldn’t afford to leave the rooms empty.”
“But I reserved two rooms.”
“I called your number and you didn’t answer.”
“Of course I didn’t answer,” Marlena said, leaning over the counter towards the man. “I wasn’t home.”
“Oh.” The man slid Marlena’s driver’s license towards her. “We assumed it was a cell-phone number.”
Marlena had actually had a cell phone a few years back. Now she couldn’t even remember why she’d gotten it really
except that everyone seemed to need them all of a sudden and her daughter Monica had made fun of her for not having one. After Jason went to prison though she’d canceled the thing and used the extra cash for his commissary money.
“I waited till ten.” The man was young, his face taut and smug in that newly minted kind of way.
“But I reserved the rooms for the whole night.” Marlena could feel her edges fraying just a bit, her voice gone unkind, but she didn’t care. “We were going to visit the wishing well,” she said, as if somehow that might change things.
Jason made a sound like a stifled laugh. “Hey, look, Mom,” he said, “they don’t have any rooms.”
She could feel his positive energy bouncing around behind her and mixing in with the young desk man’s self-assured facial features and she wanted to say something to teach them a lesson but suddenly it was absurdly clear that she didn’t have any knowledge to impart except maybe that there really was no microscopic mermaid at the bottom of the swimming pool.
• • •
Back in the car Jason took over driving even though he didn’t have a license. Marlena was too tired and disappointed to argue with him when he suggested heading on and finishing those last four hours to Hardin. She fell asleep and her head lolled and when she woke the silence was so thick between them that she had a hard time breathing.
“I wish I’d said something,” she whispered, unsure for a moment if she’d mouthed the words aloud.
“There wasn’t anything to be done.” Jason’s face looked spooky in the dashboard lights. The sky outside was dark and starless and Marlena was riding somewhere south of Wichita with a stranger whom she’d birthed.
“No I wish I’d said, ‘I’m seeing my son for the first time in two and a half years, after he got out of prison. And I’m on vacation for the first time in my life, you dick ass fucker.’”
Jason’s laughter split the air. “Yeah, I wish you’d said that too.” He shook his head and smiled big.
“Also, I wish I’d told him that the World’s Deepest Wishing Well is probably very boring.” Marlena could feel her cheeks flushing but for once it felt good. “You wouldn’t be able to see the all the pretty sparkling coins if they were down that deep and besides, how do you even know that your wish reaches the bottom?”
Jason nodded as if he were seriously considering this point. “You know,” he said, “that you—the you that would say that to him—she’s out there.” He lifted his right hand off the wheel and pointed at the road ahead. “There’s like a million you’s out there, you know?”
Marlena let her gaze glide along past Jason’s hand and off towards the horizon where, out of the dark plains a row of oil derricks jutted up with bright flames twisting above the metal scaffolding. The landscape here was far more beautiful at night, even without stars, and Marlena realized that she was glad they were driving through it now with those rusty metal derricks lit up against the huge sky because the longer she looked at them the more she could see, very clearly burning up there, all her frightened quiet compliant selves.
Mesha Maren’s debut novel, Sugar Run, is forthcoming from Algonquin Books in January 2019. Her short stories and essays appear in Tin House, Oxford American, Hobart, The Barcelona Review, and Forty Stories: New Writing from Harper Perennial and she has been the recipient of fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the Ucross Foundation. She currently teaches fiction at the MFA program at West Virginia Wesleyan College and at the Beckley Federal Correctional Institution.