by Doug Ramspeck
Guilt, it has always seemed to Roger, is visceral. It takes up residence inside the body, burrowing or maybe perching there, as much a part of you as your bones or blood or lungs. You sense it waiting even when no one else can see it, even when you stop obsessing and the days and nights slip past on their conveyor belts.
He remembers it clearly—too clearly—even after all the years. He is driving from his childhood home near Columbus, Ohio, to Grinnell College in Iowa, where he is about to begin his sophomore year. He is passing through Indiana and has gotten lost while trying to bypass Bloomington. Earlier he left I-74 and, with a bit of dead reckoning, imagined he might carve a few minutes from the trip on rural roads, but now, with the radio cranked up, his elbow out the window, he is no longer confident of his direction. It is August, dust rising from the tires as he speeds past bean fields and cornfields, and he comes to a slight rise in the road not long after passing over rusting railroad tracks. He hasn’t seen another car for miles, and he is pressing down harder on the accelerator, feeling the impatience of the Camry, and suddenly—in a moment he still dreams about—he sees the girl on the bicycle. Maybe she is ten or eleven, her head swiveling at the sound of the engine. She is neither at the center of the road nor at its verge, but directly in his lane, the afternoon sunlight angling across the narrow ribbon of pavement, the girl’s light hair windblown and snapping behind her like a small sail.
Now, so many years later, Roger carries uncooked bratwurst and buns and potato chips out the kitchen door to the gas barbecue. Earlier he called out the window to offer to make lunch for his son and his girlfriend, and they shrugged their acquiescence, both of them squinting into the noon light. He returns, next, with soft drinks and carrot sticks and brownies purchased from the store, then focuses on cooking the bratwurst to an even brown. His son is handsome—evident in the parade of girlfriends always hanging around the house, including the one on the back lawn now. Louise Miller is her name, or maybe Mueller, Lou for short. She is sunbathing on the trampoline in an orange bikini while Jack is sitting beside her. Earlier they were taking turns trying to outdo each other with back-flips.
And when Roger sits with his son and Lou in lawn chairs, the meal on paper plates in their laps, he looks across to where the girl is sharing the plastic recliner with his son, a white T-shirt pulled over her bathing suit—the orange still visible beneath—and he can’t help but notice how she keeps casting glances toward Jack as though with a kind of unabashed devotion. They are juniors in high school, and all Roger can think about is how she has no clue, none at all. The average length of time his son remains focused on any one girl is perhaps a month or six weeks at most, and the two of them are nearly there.
“Jack tells me you’re a cheerleader?” Roger says.
“Yep,” the girl says.
“That’s why she was better than me at flips,” Jack says.
Not even a week later, Lou is gone from their lives, and Roger’s son passes most of his days—when he’s not staying at his mother’s house—peering into the refrigerator, or with his friends in the backyard, playing poker at the picnic table. Then, almost at once, there is a new girl—this one with short reddish orange hair, and a flush of freckles, and a high giggle that pierces its way through the floor when Roger is trying to sleep. One night when he comes down the stairs in search of his glasses, his son and the new girl are reclining on the living room couch in the dark. Roger coughs to make his presence known, and by the time he returns from the kitchen, the lamp is bright beside them, and both are fully dressed. The television flickers, emitting sounds of explosions.
Perhaps three days later, in early evening, when Roger is just home from work, someone rings the doorbell. And when he opens the front door, Louise is there, her ancient Chevy behind her in the drive. Her hair is tied back from her face in a way that emphasizes even more than usual her youthful prettiness, and her deep summer tan. And the roots of her hair—parted in a jagged line down the center—are darker than the others around it, and she carries both of her flip-flops in one hand, wears white shorts and a teal blouse. The evening sun is behind her, the clouds swollen an angry pink, the wafer of sun half-submerged between the neighboring houses.
“Is Jack here?” she asks.
“He’s working,” Roger says. “Taco Bell.”
“I think his shift ends at midnight.”
“Do you want me to say you stopped by?”
Her eyes narrow into such fine slits it is as though she longs to blot out the world. She says, “No … that’s okay.”
And her voice seems to be coming apart at the seams, and she dabs the back of her hand to her eyes, and after she drives off in her car, Roger opens a Coors from the refrigerator, carries it into the Florida room, and looks through the screen mesh at the backyard and the woods. And later when it is time for bed, he carries still another beer up the stairs, and he reads until the curtains of his eyes droop. Then he turns off the light and sleep swirls around him—like dipping into a brackish pond. He is dreaming, then, and in the dream he sees, as always, the collision sending the bicycle airborne, propelling the girl and the bike far from the road into the grass. At once in the dream he is out of the car, the bike gleaming and broken at the roadside, but the girl, seemingly, has vanished. And at that moment in the dream—and this is often the case—Roger awakes with a start, and he hears the garage door going up then down, which means his son is home.
Roger lifts himself. The green glow of the clock says it’s after two. He slips on his bathrobe, makes his way down the stairs, finds his son at the kitchen table, eating round slabs of bologna from a package.
The words must have been percolating inside Roger as he slept, for they arrive at once. He says, “That girl, Louise, came by while you were at work. What do you do to them, Jack? She was crying a little.”
“What?” Jack says, blinking, his mouth opening in a jagged wound.
“Just try to be a little nicer,” Roger says. Then suddenly he suspects he’s in the wrong here, and he tries to approach his son and to touch him on the shoulder, to tell him it’s okay, okay, but at once Jack is retreating up the stairs, off to bed.
Roger, for years now, has had floaters mostly in his left eye, a detritus that he sometimes mistakes for birds flitting past at the periphery of his vision. The floaters seem to come and go, drifting on their small rafts then disappearing, forever at the ready. It somehow seems that way now with Lou, who, within the week, is back on the trampoline with Jack, back in her orange bathing suit, back nuzzling her face into his son’s neck or leaning against him when they walk into the woods. There is a small stream they can stand beside if the mosquitoes show mercy. And Lou is now on the couch late at night—replacing the orange-haired girl, switching out one for the next—and returned to the kitchen table, returned on the living room floor, both of them on their bellies as they gaze at something existing on the small screen of a cellphone, their shoulders bumping.
Then on a Sunday late in the month, Jack invites a dozen or more of his high school friends to the house for hamburgers and hotdogs and chicken wings cooked on the grill, the boy insisting on doing it all by himself, paying for the food from his fast-food wages, playing host—with Lou—to the guests, fetching them soft drinks and snacks and blaring the music through the open dining room window. Some of the teens test out the trampoline, rising high into the air in defiance—for a few brief moments—of gravity. Others stand and laugh and flirt and squint into the sun. It is a muggy and excruciating day, the heat ranging toward triple digits, and most of the boys have stripped off their shirts, and most of the girls are dressed in shorts and T-shirts or bathing suits. Roger, who peers now and then from the Florida room, notices one girl he doesn’t believe he has ever seen before. She has a veil of dark hair down to her waist, and she is pretty and outgoing, touching the boys on the arms when she speaks, throwing her head back when she laughs, the thin sheen of perspiration making her skin glisten in the sun. Roger sees his son attempting not to look her way, attempting to keep a buffer of distance between them, to follow, instead, closely behind Lou, obedient, his eyes cast down. But now and then Jack’s eyes flit upward, latching onto the new girl as she sips her soft drink through a straw. It is unbearable, Roger thinks, to see his son laboring to maintain this new vision of himself.
Later Roger comes face to face with Lou in the kitchen. He has stepped there to retrieve the checkbook and envelopes from the drawer—bills to pay—and Lou, forever in that same orange bikini, forever with her vulnerable and naïve eyes, speaks to him in a voice that seems far more pressing and urgent than the words imply.
“Are we making too much noise?” she asks.
“It’s nicer in here with the air-conditioning.”
“Yes, it is.”
Roger, in this moment, experiences a sudden and unexpected rush of feeling, so powerful he can’t at first identify it. And he begins thinking—despite that it makes no sense, despite that the girl he struck with his car would have been much older now—that Lou is like that girl—the one he walked into the tall grass to find. And he did find her, of course, her neck and limbs twisted into impossible angles, the bright reproach of blood everywhere. And suddenly Roger wants to warn Lou that she is likely to remain Jack’s girlfriend for the briefest stretch of time, despite that he is trying, really trying, and that girls, for Jack—especially since the divorce—are as temporary as the fireflies blinking on and off around the trampoline after dark. And then the most astonishing thing of all happens. Roger feels other words longing to escape from his throat, words he has never spoken to a single person, not even to his wife when they were married. He imagines telling Lou that, when he was a little older than she is now, he was guilty of vehicular homicide, that he struck and killed a child then drove off and never told anyone, that he took his car to a repair shop a few weeks later and claimed he’d struck a deer. He wants to say this to Lou in this moment, to describe how he knelt before the girl in the grass, how he could not bring himself to touch her, not even to feel for a pulse at her neck or at her wrist, that death was an impediment to the most natural impulse of reaching out. And he wants to tell Lou that rarely a day has gone past when he hasn’t thought about that girl, at least once, the guilt like a dusk sun that stains a lake its same deep red. Roger feels the words gathering within him, preparing themselves, but when his mouth opens something else emerges instead.
He says, “You’re a sweet girl. Jack is lucky.”
Doug Ramspeck is the author of six poetry collections and one collection of short stories. His most recent book, Black Flowers (2018), is published by LSU Press. Individual poems and stories have appeared in journals that include The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, Slate, and The Georgia Review. He teaches creative writing at The Ohio State University at Lima.