Lily looked at you hard when she laughed. She came to the plains from an eastern city to see the size of the weather, the long breaths of wind, the way you could see the rain well before you rode into it. The place I was from was just as empty but not as flat. It took me years to get used to having nothing on the horizon, nothing farther in the distance to mark time. When I first got off the highway, there was a tin-roofed gas station at the end of the long exit ramp, then a town you couldn't see until you were inside it. There were dusty brick streets and storefront bars, a lot of places to find someone who looked a lot like Lily. I met her late one summer night when she caught me about to kill a wasp beneath a streetlight.
"Don't," she said.
She wore her hair long and her jeans high in a way I liked. We stood and smoked, talking about the warmth of the air. I bought beers served in jars with handles and we sat in a booth along a row of windows, like we were in a train about to leave. We went for slow walks under big dark oaks and I found out about her father, recently gone from cancer, the money he left, the three-story federal she rented and lived in alone. There had been a failed engagement, she said, whole years lost. Lily looked young but almost a decade separated us. She said she worked during the days but didn't say at what. Her house was hardwood and stacked with books so I imagined someone paid her to think about things I couldn't yet understand. I had been alone a long time and figured there was a lot I didn't know.
That spring the rain was heavy and I took her to the overflow—a ten-foot pipe at the base of a river dam. We stood at the chain-link fence where brown floodwater poured. A foul-smelling mist sprayed up from the constant, violent waves. We watched the waters swell for too long, so long the ground seemed to move and made us dizzy.
"What's it mean?" she wanted to know.
"Nothing," I said. "You said this was the kind of stuff you wanted to see."
We watched a little while longer, not saying anything. The clouds broke around the sun and made the day hot. A few men were fishing where the water calmed.
"Do you know how to get to the corn from here?" she asked.
There were some apartment complexes, an inexpensive university between us and the cornfields. "The corn's pretty much straight in every direction," I said. She laughed the way I hoped she would.
She wanted me to take her in my big car with the old radio and the bench seat. This was her first summer away from the city and Lily took me to be an expert in awayness. The road to the corn turned to white gravel and opened clear of shade. It was June and the humidity had broken and the yellow light came thick like paint down to the stalks. I drove slowly over the hard-packed dust. Barns sat white and broad beside their houses. I watched her.
"You're the perfect company for here," she said, her arm resting across the open window. She wanted me to talk. She liked the way I drew out my words. I told her about where I was from, the way the water ran orange with iron, how it was deep with woods and how you learned to belong to it in an urgent way. The people there were barrel-chested and moved slowly through coal-heated houses and warehouse jobs and long morning drives to public schools. For a long time I still loved them, but the longer they left me alone, the more I realized I could never go back.
We pulled over at a crossroads and Lily took pictures of the sign.
"R Avenue and 191st Street," she read and laughed.
She had me walk into the corn while she took pictures which later she'd wash out or brighten so that today already looked like something old and gone.
"Does the corn grow under the ground or out from the stalk?" Lily asked. She had put sunglasses on and was sitting on my hood with her legs beneath her.
"Depends on the farmer," I said.
She gathered enough from my tone to smile. We drove on, listening to the crush of stone under the car. She was small and her white shorts were tight to her thighs. I imagined her younger: field trips to expensive city museums, cab rides with cash her mother gave her. The meter running while city rain ran down the window.
I drove with one hand high on the wheel while she ran her finger down the raised vein on the other. I stared at her skin, how there was something urgent about her even when she was still.
"This is better than what I'm used to," I said.
"I know," she said and smiled like she did know about it, like she knew about the shingle-sided house I left behind, the junked cars, the stinging smell of dog shit in the grass.
"I'm not sure what to do sometimes," I said.
"About all of this."
"Don't do anything," she said. "Watch the road."
There were no mountains here and the darkness came up from the ground instead of down from the sky. We drove farther and came to a long brick building, vines grown up the side of it, windows glossed over with dust. Trucks rusted in the shade of a maple tree and lightning bugs flashed in their shadow. I slowed to a stop.
"They must have been rich," she said.
"Looks like a boarding house."
Something in the early evening conspired. The sun was burning at eye level, flooding across the ground from the farthest piece of sky. Lily opened the door and walked out into the light and stopped. Her hair hung and shined behind her. I got out and pushed the door closed. She said nothing while I walked toward her. We kissed while the sun was warm and thick. The ivy blazed white and green up the side of the barn.
An hour passed and the good light was dying well.
"I'm not certain I can drive," I said.
"You don't need to be certain."
We put down the windows, the big night air coming in. Lily leaned far over the center console and gripped the hair on the back of my head. Each tug hurt just long enough to notice. She writhed in her seat and I sat still. The hills curled steeply into one another until the road leveled at the edge of town and she quit pulling. It was full-on night. She moved her hands into her lap and a change came over her, as if she suddenly remembered something that made her life feel far away and impossible. She'd remembered this was a strange town and the person beside her was strange.
I dropped her off and watched as she walked through clipped grass toward the porch light.
Most times I called she didn't answer, and when she did, she declined politely to go anywhere else. I went for drives to think about the shade of her hair or the way she smelled, to try to feel again what it felt like to be with her at that barn. You can't remember the way a thing like that was, so you make it up new every time you remember. Late summer was dry and the flow from the spillway weakened more and more each time I came back. The light turned pale and winter, the leaves yellowed and flaked off the trees. Some nights, she called me when it was late to read a poem she was writing, one I sensed was about longing or disappointment.
I listened and waited for the moment when I felt her reading would slow. After long, I was just hearing her talk.
Another person in love would simply say I'm lonely. Come over. I sometimes smell you when you aren't here.
I drank for nerves and was always too drunk by the time she hung up.
One warm day in September, a house behind mine caught fire. I saw the people in the street staring into the middle distance, their children pointing in the grave way children will announce danger.
I took the wooden stairs to the courtyard and into the crowd. The fire blazed hot and orange from the alley behind us, green maple leaves crackling in the flames. Lily answered on the third ring.
"The building behind mine is on fire," I said.
"Hold on," she said, "I want to come take pictures."
She was waiting for the streetlight at a carless intersection when I recognized her by the length of her hair. She stood beside me and I tried to look like I made sense. We walked toward the fire. Cloth hoses crisscrossed the street and leaked streams of water while firemen knocked the windows out of the house. The smoke was heavy now and made it hard to see what was burning.
"It's not a clean fire," Lily said, lowering her camera for when it burned brighter.
She tapped a button and something inside the camera hummed. Whatever the light was doing on those leaves and that smoke now belonged to her. She took it. She turned, photographing the people now, their faces and night shirts lit orange with the firelight. Here were neighbors watching their neighborhood burn.
"You can see it's vacant," she said.
"Still," I said.
Children sat in the grass at our feet and asked questions no one was comfortable answering. There was a moment when we could tell the fire was about to change; the smoke itself grew dense and began to burn. It was night now and I could feel the heat on my forehead. News crews were arriving, their red-laced antennae extending from the tops of the vans. The fire chief came out from between the row of trucks. Containment, he said, was top priority. The entire block was being evacuated.
"I'll need a place to stay," I said.
I was tired and thought about her sleeping against me but knew she wouldn't allow it. I could see the spindles smoking now, the metal of the storm door burning, sense the size of the hands that had pushed that screen slack. The heat cooked an old chemical out of the neighboring roof and it caught flame fast. The firemen shouted, turning open red valves.
Lily's house was painted wallpaper and scarred hardwood. She opened a curtainless window, lit a cigarette.
"Do I have to explain things to you?" she asked. She took pillows from a hallway linen closet and left me on the couch before quietly putting herself to bed. I couldn't sleep. I wanted to hear my own voice drawl again, wanted to lie on the dirt that had made my bones.
I looked out the window and across the street at my building, backlit by floodlights, to be sure it wasn't burning.
When I woke, it was still dark. I remembered where I was and left. The fire still smoldered and the police had crossed my building's door with caution tape. There was nowhere to go but my car. The traffic lights were still blinking red as I started toward the corn. I wanted to see the size again, the way it made time feel longer. Once I was in it, I kept going. The blue of the sky lightened on the highway and turned to dawn by the start of the next state. My brother's wife had bore a daughter back in the mountains where I was born. I needed to see a woman hold a child.
I called when it seemed it would be daylight back in the east. Already the plains were damp and hot, spitting rain. By Ohio the roads began to cut rock walls into the feet of the Alleghenies. The mountains broke the line of sight; lights disappeared from the horizon. The highway split into narrower and darker roads. There were a sign at the start of the county to tell me how high I was and I climbed up out of the heat. The cold air felt cleaner.
It was late at night when the state route turned to dirt, a half mile from where I was headed. My brother Jason bought his company house on the road where we were raised, then built a deck and fenced in some dogs. They crouched and wagged at the kitchen door without barking and I lowered my hand. The floorboards were warm and I could feel the fire Jason had banked in the basement.
He stood in the bathroom at the top of the stairs. "Any particular reason you're here?" he asked. His brow was dark and steep.
"Just wanted to be able to tell where I stood," I said.
I thought the woods and the hills would make me feel housed again; I liked the dead silence, the lack of sirens and highway noise. Nothing but the quick click of pipes when the water was hot enough to circulate.
"Well," he said, "the room's ready."
I slept into the dusk and awoke to gray sky behind the blinds, the low ceiling only a few feet from my face. The kitchen air tasted bitter with coal soot while Jason emptied the burner of its ashes. His wife filled a basin with warm water to bathe the baby. Their daughter held her body taut, squirming with closed eyes. His wife stood in loose cotton and cradled the baby's neck, lowered her into the water.
"This is your brother's child," she said. "I can already tell she's not going to like it here."
Her eyes moved slowly as her hands smoothed over the baby. A breeze blew over the house, sucking the curtain to the window screen and pulling trails of steam from the bath. I remembered winter baths as a boy: the open window, the uneven heat. I sat in the hot water in the old house with no other houses around it. I imagined I was in a skyscraper with hundreds of stories stacked on top of me. It was a world of small secret rooms.
Jason came up the stairs behind us, his arms blacked with coal dirt.
"Glad you're up," he said. "Come out on the porch with me."
It was raining a coastal mist. The lane past Jason's porch turned muddy and began to puddle. He pulled a bag from his back pocket full of a synthetic pot he'd ordered off the Internet. I watched through the window as his wife finished bathing the baby and wrapped her in a towel. She moved to the window to watch us.
"This is the Mad Hatter," he said, opening the bag. "It'll scramble your brains for a half hour."
"The federal government is trying to outlaw it," his wife said through the screen door. "If it causes central nervous system failure, your brother will be the first one to know."
She was pulling her hair up, letting it fall again—she was tall, brunette, what Jason repeatedly called a good woman. He put her through nursing school doing twelve hour days hauling demolished buildings out of the state's only city. She kept him from letting his teeth fall out. Jason got the glass pipe hot and handed it to me. The Mad Hatter tasted dry and wasn't as warm or heavy in my head as I'd hoped. Rain dripped down the tin gutters. There was gunfire in the distance, someone sighting in their rifle.
"I like the kind of quiet I have here," Jason said.
"Anything noisy gets lost in the trees," I said.
Our dad had moved back to the more populated side of the state after our mother died of a fast cancer. I left to sort out what was me and wasn't. Jason stayed to live the way we knew: hungry, tired, at work in a desperate way. He fell in love with hardship. It was an easy thing to trust. He sent me letters, old photos he found in attic drawers. Sometimes it was a grandfather in uniform, a grandmother with her hand on her hip, posed in front of a ball game.
"I want to take you out on the hill tonight," Jason said.
The hill wasn't so much a singular place as a collection of places, deep in the woods, that served as a realm for him to enact the purest form of himself. He drank beer from red and white cans, discussed his tattoos, his future tattoo plans. You could buy little orange bottles of medicine from guys with tracheotomies who had prescriptions for work-related injuries. Their wives had hard, skinny bodies and drawls so thick as to sound Celtic.
Jason went in the house and came out with a T-shirt.
"You won't want to wear that yellow one out there," he said, gesturing.
I looked down at myself, the stripes running parallel to my chest.
"Suppose not," I said.
He started the truck while I downed the beer I'd only just opened.
"Bring it," he said, "We're only heading up to Danny's."
Danny's was a shingle-sided house that sagged into a mountain's slope. Jason straddled the dirt driveway's washouts while dogs tied at the hilltop barked. We parked beside a stone garage with rotted beams. An old, fast car sat rusting, its tires flat against the dirt floor. Danny was shirtless and sitting on the gate beside a plastic bucket of ice and beer.
"Got my little brother with me," Jason said.
"I'd have figured that out," Danny said.
Three girls in T-shirts longer than their shorts stood in the driveway, piling dirt. It was a contest and Danny was the judge. He used his boot to help the youngest and the two others called him a cheater. I tried to hold myself stiff at my shoulders while he and Jason talked about getting each other better jobs. They told each other how good for it they were. Neither moved their mouths much when they spoke. The rain had stopped but the humidity made the dust stick to our skin and sting.
"You know me," Danny said. Sweat beaded on his pitted brow. He looked like a man who'd lived a life in complete disregard of his body. "I'm a family man. I got these daughters."
It turned into a clear cloudless night and Jason exhaled hard, pointing out his breath. A bare bulb lit the wood and stone from a wire wrapped around a rafter. Danny finished a tight roll on a blunt before handing it to me with a lighter.
"You ever knock anyone up?" he asked.
"No," I said.
There was a pause while he considered my face and realized I must be halfway through my twenties.
"You queer?" he asked.
From behind the shed, his daughters pulled hair and screamed.
"I'll rip your head off," one said.
"I'll rip your head off," said the other.
"I'll rip both your fucking heads off," Danny shouted, a sudden anger I remembered expecting from every dad I knew when I was little. Our own father raged until the anger got too heavy for him and then he apologized so as to feel nothing.
"No, man," I said. He grinned because he could see I wouldn't try and fight him. I hadn't had the spirit to fight in a long time.
Danny's heavy wife came out and took the daughters into the house by the backs of their shirts. The blunt went around a few more times. There was nothing for me to be but a child. I didn't know what to do with my face, where to look when I talked. They looked at me with hard fixed eyes. I was a thief. I was here because I could not pay for the things I needed. Another hit made me cough hard. Danny knocked the pipe clean on the workbench and laughed. I went outside the garage door to spit in the dirt while my stomach held tight with fear.
"It's getting to about that time," Danny said. "Some of us work for a living."
I was still bent over, coughing. Jason slapped my back and a hollow thud came through my chest.
"Keep your guts down in my truck, little brother," he said.
On our way off the hill, the headlights caught the eyes of deer in the clearing. We slowed and watched them decide which way they wanted to run.
"You hit them with a truck as big as this one," Jason said, "and they damn near explode."
I nodded, silent. He knew he had no purpose anymore except to show me his life so I'd remember it was once my own.
I slept that night unsettled and dry—the radiator beside my bed was too hot and situated under a window swollen shut. What my life had once been came back suddenly: a smell like dirt, wet ash, the way it felt to be alone and hungry. I planned escapes to other lives. I imagined bright, wide cities lying in wait at the bottom of the mountains.
The next morning I left while Jason slept—my heart beat hard against blood thickened by the trip. I drove the hours back down the ridges. The road widened at dusk. At a rest stop at the edge of the state, dozens of bearded and robed men came out of a bus and bowed on the eastern macadam in prayer. Truckers with scabbed faces bought cases of bright green soda. My car moved fast in all that space, past the stumps of corn that blinked by in perfect rhythms. I hit the flat land again. The car sat me low to the ground with the controls right up against the balls of my feet. It seemed I was part of some big purpose till the size of what was out there exhausted me. Eventually there were no states, there was only the sky that never got any closer and me moving through places I could not stay.