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"Ascent to Mt. Carmel" by Jessie Lifton — part two

Later that same week, a muggy week in September, between all the black holes, I remember watching over my mother’s shoulder, as she cooked me cheese grits, afraid that she would put rat poison into the bubbling pot, the way that women did on TV. My uncle would have left that morning maybe, after the holidays were over. But even then I kept watching, to make sure of my unnatural survival. Like some sort of parasitic beast. Some things are meant to be destroyed. And I am one of them. That I wasn’t is an aberration. That my brother wasn’t is short of the type of spiral pattern that you see in the way a rose curls in on itself, right to the bud. In the way the mighty roly poly curls into a crescent moon, disappearing into the primal black dot that belongs to it. Spirals everywhere, inside the cornea of Bruce’s eye I could see one too.

 

On clippings in my Mother’s room it says that dad held them for months so that they wouldn’t be able to get abortions, and then he would release them back into the wild. He wanted to propagate the Earth with his seed. He wanted us to know we belonged to him.


I wanted Bruce to leave. I didn’t know how to ask without being mean, so instead I offered him coffee. My blue eyes looked back at me, pupils blown wide and empty, tougher. A man’s eyes. I would rather die than have to be a man and look like we do.

 

He drank down the Americano I made him grimacing. My mom likes her coffee made to very specific standards, “It’s the best way to drink it without the milk, you know, the milk…”


I trailed off. I think of Bruce Springsteen. Bruce. My Brother. Sits and doesn’t look at me, just stares at the cup in front of him that he’s just chugged down like it’s water. Picking at his dirty fingernails. Something comes over me. I want to wash his hands for him. I see one of his naibeds is split down the middle. I want to buff his nails, and push back the cuticles, and cradle them in the center of my palms, safe. A purpling callous on his palm, from holding something rough, maybe.

 

“I wanted to pay my respects.”


He’s lying. The knees of his jeans are dusty, worn in. I felt bad pointing it out, the lie he was telling me. I felt bad all over. I didn’t want him to leave, maybe. He looked like me. Behind his head was a Precious Moments print, framed. A little blonde boy in overalls, his sad eyes filling over with hopeless longing.


I looked back to my brother. I put him in my Mother’s room, moving around the unplugged medical equipment so he could walk in a straight line to the bed.

 

“We’re selling them. The machines. I just…haven’t done it.”


“I’ll take care of it. Don’t worry about it.”


“Okay.” That was fine with me. I’m very easy to please.

 

The way it was with my mother. I would ask and she would say, Don’t worry about it baby. And I’d say, okay. And it would be okay. I wouldn’t need to know, because I had her.

 

I left him there, sitting in my blanket nest, pulling the covers over my head. I was having bad heartburn. Thinking about IRA’s and Mortgage and how to use Can-Openers. Things I didn’t understand. How would I get to the store to buy food? How did you apply for food stamps? How did you enroll in college classes? What did mortgage even mean?? I had absolutely no idea about anything. Anything at all. The image of My Melody stared back at me, her pink little grin, her stupid little hat, printed a million times in front of my face, inside the darkness of my artificially made cave. I hate things that are fake. I hate leaving.


I pace in front of the old organ Mom used to play, tuning and retuning its guts until the strings are ready to snap.


That night we ate spaghetti. I ran the dishwasher five times in a row, my hands bleeding. Can’t sleep Bruce had turned all the lights in the house back on. He locked himself in the bathroom, for fifteen minutes this time. He kept getting up throughout dinner and coming back and leaving again. I knew what that meant. But it’s not nice to point it out. And anyways. Let him shoot up if he wants to. Let him sell our useless antique porcelain figurines for drug money. He’d earned the right, at this point. That’s the way it felt. As long as he was nice to me, I didn’t really care what he did. That’s what it means to be family.


At four AM I found him lying face down, in just a pair of red plaid boxers, in my Mother’s bed. I laid down next to him, hiding my face between his chest and the mattress, the pink jersey sheets. Imagining he was her instead. My fear that he would attack me was lessening the more tired I became. After five benadryls I was ready to die without complaint if he wanted me to. I let the feeling of suffocating come into me. Bruce grabbed at my waist, pulling me into him without waking up for a second.


I should shave my head.


And she would have no one to blame but herself, the fucking whore, for leaving me here all alone. Oh God. I was all alone. I shoved my face deeper, smelling his Axe body spray, the scent of his oiling hair, until I couldn’t breathe at all. Let suffocation come into me, let it wound my throat, let it blind me and make me dumb, let it suck out the air from inside of my lungs. All things will leave, behind me. Behind me, back where I came from. If you can’t hear, if you can’t see, if you can’t breathe, you aren’t alone. You are crushed by another body, you aren’t alone. Let the boulder of his muscled weight come and press me into paste.


I dreamt of the forest. I could feel it was a dream. This time. I woke up into my childhood bedroom, but I knew I was still dreaming. I couldn’t speak, or move. But the sound of the forest, the smell of lilacs, wouldn’t leave. My friend was on the phone, but she hung up when I couldn’t call out for help. In the kitchen there was a man, and a large thing that looked like a dog. They were making me soup, but putting in draino with the broth. I couldn’t breathe. All my limbs were spread out like I was tied to the bed, too useless to even need strings. My mother was on the phone, but she wasn’t speaking. Then she hung up on me too. In the distance, I could hear the waves of the ocean. I felt the crashing of the rocks I heard humming. I knew I needed to choke to wake up. If I didn’t kill myself I would be killed first. I cut my teeth on my tongue after ten tries, paralyzed, my whole body except for my eyes, which darted about the dark living room. The big dark man who stood in the doorway. I screamed and woke up.


For the next two days we didn’t speak.  Instead I let Bruce sort through our collection of records, putting on Iggy Pop. Turning the speakers up too loud, almost blowing them out. He pulled the blankets off the mirrors. He pushed me into the bathroom with a towel and a grimace. He cleaned out the fridge and the trash in the living room. I laid next to the lawn chairs, on the grass, under the weight of the summer heat, an anvil on my limbs, wearing only my mom’s old bikini from the 1980’s and a pair of her cut off shorts. Bruce got tired of Iggy Pop, and moved on to Kendrick Lamar. Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe lulled me into little fits of sleep between pulls of shitty weed and Bruce, lying on his stomach next to me, chain smoking Marlboros, the Virgin Mary on his back, brutal and ever encompassing. Her little wise face, the black of the ink, staring at the sky. I picked at the dandelions that surrounded us, pulling apart their entrails, letting them fall back down without blowing. The grass itched my back. My mother and I were both allergic to it. That, and salt water. Or maybe sensitive is the right word. We both had sensitive skin. We were both sensitive. The dandelion guts fell limp, and did not fly away from me. Let them multiply, God said. Maybe. Let them multiply. Let my seed propagate this Earth. I could take a knife to it, make it right. His back. The Virgin’s smile. I could take a knife to it like all those men who burnt down icons in the Byzantine. The Iconoclasts. I learned about that last winter, in my Art History elective. I liked the idea of it. Destroying the old, and making way for the new. Clouding out the face of idols, taking a sledgehammer to the golden calf. Bruce was a heathen. I didn’t want to scar his back. I closed my eyes, and let the sun create little spots of purple red blue green inside of me, until he reached over to cover the top half of my face. I could smell the tobacco on him, staining my eyelids like old fashioned kohl.

 

“You’ll go blind.”


I placed my hand over his.


I didn’t ask why he was here I didn’t need to because Dad was going on parole in two months. My mom was dead. Bruce had no money. He had his car and a duffel bag and an endless supply of fentanyl. I had a house, and my Mom’s life insurance check. And no plans for the future. He wanted to use me because I was family. I kept spying the bottom of his leg, which looked like it was rotting off from the foot upwards. In the womb, God had marked both of us apart. A darkened mark on the forehead, that only we could see. I pulled his hand away from my face, gripping it, gripping onto the callouses there, turning my face into the grass, inhaling dirt, the smell of clovers. Bruce lay down next to me.

 

The only time I had ever met Bruce was in the playroom inside the courthouse. Bruce told me. I don’t remember. I was only a baby. He was four or five. He sat next to me, staring down at my blue eyes, trying to shake little toys in front of me. But I stayed completely silent until my mother came to get me. He said it was his first memory. My silence. He called it stoicism. Actually, what he said was: “You were a real tough ass baby. Didn’t give a shit…. You were lucky.”

 

I imagined coming into the memory from above, from lightyears away, and watching us. The image of us, so small. I make myself sick. All children and babies inspire a great fear into me. Even if that child is myself. Especially then. I don’t want to hurt anything, but I’m afraid that inside of me the mark grows and spreads its rot. And I become what I was made to be. Raper Child Killer Wounder. Women can kill too, I know they can, which is what scares me. If women couldn’t rape or kill I would be safe. I could be hurt. But that was fine. It was the idea of hurting that struck me with unending dread. Each day I woke up, the necrosis further and further climbing inside of me claiming everything into a miasma. I am a crime.


But we are family, Bruce. Maybe in a way my mother and I never could be. God had marked us both apart. Yes. Yes, he marked us with black ash on our foreheads. He himself had set us apart as creatures made up of shame. Things born of slime, of dark places. Where insects lived and bred, where jaws ate up anything that got too close. Seams that opened up like badly sewn teddy bears. You pull the string, and out comes rot, everywhere. Black in color, that rot. That man, living. Taking up space. Leaving himself behind. At least Bruce had the temerity to let the outside reflect the inside. His leg was proof of that.

 

I was a coward. After five days of Bruce living with me I was plastering two pounds of foundation on my face like a mask every morning. First I used a pore blurring primer, then I used Tarte Foundation, then I would take out the Fenty Beauty Concealer which was patchy. I needed a new one. And then I would go in with the magnetic eyeliner and lashes because they were faster than the glue. I bought them from an instagram boutique in an effort to support small businesses, but it turned out the owner had been drop shipping from China the whole time anyways. And then the Milk Makeup blush stick, and the Charlotte Tilbury lip liner and lipstick, Pillow Talk. After four days Bruce had turned the clocks back on. He had plugged the fridge back in. He had showed me how to use a can opener and how to cook rice.


He was taking care of things.

 

“See. You put half the ratio,” He was slurring his words. “You put half the amount of rice, two to one of rice and water.”


“And then you boil it?”


“No. For the first part, yeah.”

 

We stared down into the pot. The unlit burner. He patted the top of my head, petting my clean hair, untangled. I turned the stove on. I felt ashamed and stupid. I was lazy. I didn’t know how to do the things other adults knew how to do. I felt stupid. Big stupid tears fell into the pot, ruining the rice.


Bruce pulled me away from the flame, where my hair was about to catch fire.


“What’s wrong?”


“Nothing.”


”What’s wrong?”


”I’m a retard. I’m a retard.”

 

”No you’re not.”


My face was being squished between his fingers. He was staring into me, still swaying.

 

”My sister is not a fucking retard. You are not a retard.”

 

I started hitting myself in the face until Bruce stopped me.


“No. It’s extra protein. The tears. It’s good for you. Okay? Nothing is ruined.”


My mom used to say that, about bugs that would fly into my lemonade during the summer time.


“But it’s dirty.”


“No. We’re family. You can’t get sick from germs from your family, ya? Shit’s a rule.”


My mom used to say that also. You can’t get sick from family member’s germs. They weren’t real. You shared them, all of them. Passing a fork between us, eating out of a tub of Almond Butter. You couldn’t get sick from family. He was right.

 

I woke up to a folded up package of an air mattress next to my nest, and a calendar with puppy dogs on it, on every page. Bruce left only to go to town and he didn’t make me go with him. I stayed at home, and he would bring back a movie from the Redbox outside our one Walmart. And it would be a bad movie, because Bruce liked action movies and I didn’t. And then we went to sleep. Days and hours were very easy to count now. There was night-time, and morning, and afternoon. The early hours were the best, because inside the night suffering could be contained. I could slip into bed, on the opposite side, our hands clasped, the nightlight I had moved into my mom’s, now his room, glowing pearlescent blue. In the night the suffering could be contained. I could push my face into the mattress and wrap a cord around my neck and fall asleep to the scent of lilacs and the sound of cicadas chirping.

 

Bruce looked at me. Differently. Not in the way other men looked at me. I have a mask you see? And there are holes all over it. There are a lot of holes that reach into the blackness. There are no eyes that come out of it to see. It’s made out of plaster. There are places where you can place your cock. Acid, bile, they don’t feel it when they come inside, but I would them with little pin pricks, jagged teeth and boney spears. I know how to jump in place. I am born for one thing. I am good for one thing. And that thing is fucking. Whether I want to or not. And I have never, not once, wanted to. In my entire life. But that’s not how Bruce looked at me. He looked at me the way the Rabbi looked at me, the way that our old Papillion Buster Keaton Jr. had looked at me. Like he was expecting nothing. Like I was a human being, and not something to be ashamed of. Like he had no intention of touching. It made me feel very odd. Like I was walking towards some sort of unknown, some sort of place beyond the shore. Down the black hole I thought to myself over and over again, humming a tune, the roly poly goes. It drops down into the black dot.

 

It was November 2nd, at ten PM, as we watched John Wick 2, that Bruce nodded off.

 

On November 2nd. And I roll up his sleeve. No track marks. I take off his socks, his shoes, and finally find it. There. Between the big and second toe, is the mark of a needle. This little piggy went to the market, this little piggy went home…

 

He opens his eyes, half lidded. Looking at him from below, he looks like he wants to cry, but stays silent. He took all my stoicism with him, maybe. In the background John Wick is shooting people and their heads splatter into mush inside a giant empty city. Bruce took it with him from the courthouse playroom. Or maybe we have that in common too. I take a plastic tub from the kitchen, the one I used to use for my mother, in those last weeks, when she was so sick she could barely move and her feet started to swell. I take some antiseptic. I roll his jeans up, to expose the rotting flesh. It smells like death, like roadkill. It is a smell I am familiar with. The color is red, purple, so large I wonder how he is walking. I place his feet into the warm water. Taking a bottle of saline wound wash I drip it down his legs in rivulets. Out of his skin first comes white, then yellow secretions. He grips the armrests of the hole-ridden red chair, the one my mother and I used to sit in together, me on her lap, as we watched Frasier re-runs. His face is in a grimace of pain. I keep working. There. The pus. The rot. It washes out of his left leg the harder I work. And I am a hard worker. My hair becomes tangled in the dirty water. White mixing with the shining blonde, dying it a murky brown. I push it out of my face. I come across the largest abscess, below the knee, where the skin is red and blistering. Pressing tenderly on it. He moans out in agony. I look up, and he is crying, silently, softly. He avoids my gaze. I avert my eyes as well. I thought maybe he didn’t know how to be ashamed. I think I was wrong. We all know. We all know. I take what I can of it, and carry it within myself. I let it live inside my heart, alone.

 

“Bruce.”


He doesn't respond. I hold his knee to my chest, loosely. I place my head on his thigh.


“I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”


He keeps saying it. Disgusting, he says that word too. Between tears I can make it out


“I…disgusting….”


”No. Bruce. No. You’re my favorite person in the world. I swear. I swear.” He grabs onto my hand, almost breaking my fingers with the intensity of it. I take a knife from the first aid kit, a small scalpel, and lance the abscess one handed. Out comes a whole rush of pus, yellow and green, thick and viscous, running down his leg, it takes time to get it all out. It doesn’t want to leave. It oozes slowly, sort of coagulated together. I press with my small fingers until the abscess only releases subcutaneous fluid, clear liquid, like oil. Bruce covers his eyes with his other hand, hiding his face away then wiping it on the couch, still weeping. I wipe it clean with saline gauze, and move on. A little pile of rust colored gauze pads lines the floor. And then the blood begins to flow, after the last of the pus has gone. I hold his leg to my chest, thinking of when I fell on the playground, and my mother sat me down and kissed my forehead where I had a big bump, and how the pain went away under her soft touch. Warm like the sun. I take my hand from his and he moans with desperation.

 

“Bruce. It’s okay.”


I press my lips there, to the open wound. I taste nothing, not the scabbed flesh, or the necrosis. Not the pus. Not the tangy copper of blood. Not the oil. Nothing. I taste only the taste of my own skin. I kiss it again, and wrap the wound in a thin layer of clear surgical covering so that it can still breathe. It’s better not to use cream until we get him to the doctor. Only, I am better than a doctor. He is passed out again on the couch, from pain this time. I place a pink blanket over his shoulders, dumping the dirty water into the backyard. I come back in, and find a place to sleep, curling around his feet on the stained carpet. My face into them, into his wounded toes, into the dozens of small holes. I don’t bother to wash my hands. I feel completely and utterly clean. My mind is blank. I dream.

 

We are, the four of us, Bruce and my Mother and me, and Buster Keaton Jr, on a journey of great importance. We have cut all ties. We are walking out through the Redwood forest that surrounds my home. On my feet are long claws. I turn back and my Mother, all I can see is her dark hair, facing away, walking backwards. Bruce finds a tide pool in the middle of the forest, and begins to dig into the Earth with a buck-knife. My limbs move at first like they are deep underwater. He reaches in and digs out a sea anemone. Holding it out to me. I shake my head. I’m allergic to salt water. We do not speak. The forest is completely silent. I breathe. He presses it into my palm and I feel it’s soft tendrils, kissing the lines of my hand. They do not sting. Out of my mouth comes a humming word, a bird song, and the sound of the sparrows which line the trees. And Buster Keaton Jr. yipping, soft at my feet. I can hear, and see. I cannot speak. And Bruce, laughing, and myself, laughing. I try to turn around, but something behind me is burning. Instead Bruce grabs my face in his palms, stroking my hair. We walk alone, the breeze is cool, and the burning does not frighten me. The smell of sea water fills the air, and the two meet. I fall off of something, but I can’t see. Not the black, or the feeling of falling from such a great height. I grip his hands which have rooted into mine, our green leaves form one tendril, one mass of overlapping. I dream. The smell of lilacs, the sound of cicadas, and the sea.


________


Jessie Lifton's work has previously appeared in Apocalypse Confidential, The Writer Magazine, and Poet’s Choice.


Jessie Lifton is on X/Twitter @jessiechrxst

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