gonna marry you when we grow up.”
Even then Dee felt unsettled by Mickey’s eyes. Most people would
call them blue, but their color was smudged by an emotion she couldn’t
name. They demanded yes from her.
“Okay,” she said.
Yes was easy at age four, when every day went on forever and growing up
was unimaginable. Their fathers worked as dispatchers at the railroad
station in Soldier’s Summit, Utah. A few years later the station would
close and the town would dwindle to a café and gas station on a
secondary highway. It was already in ruins. She and Mickey explored the
cellars of houses long ago demolished, rows of square cement holes ranked
along a hillside fuzzed with sagebrush. They found dangerous things: two-by-fours
with rusty nails hammered through them, shards of blue and green glass,
barbed wire. And mysteries: a silver box without a lid, a book with its
pages rotted away.
Dee would never forget the smell of those abandoned cellars, the open
graves of homes. Spring after spring they collected snowmelt that soaked
the remains and slowly dried in the summer sun and wind, seasons of decay
like growth rings in a tree trunk.
Just outside town was the ruin of a restaurant, a long single-story building
caved in at one end. The walls at the other end stood precariously beneath
the weight of the sagging roof. Sections of the floor had been pried up,
and the moldering breath of the cellar enfolded Dee and Mickey as they
wound between the damage to the restaurants counter. Drilled holes
with blackened edges showed where stools had been bolted onto the floor.
But behind the counter was solid floor and an interior wall with shelves.
This would be their house, Mickey said. On the shelves they arranged the
silver box, the rotted book and the shards of colored glass. Under the
counter was their bedroom. They snuggled there, his breath warm and damp
against her neck.
They were forbidden to play in the ruins, but it was easy to sneak away.
Dees mom was usually busy with housework or laundry and chasing
after her two-year-old brother. Mickey’s mom stayed inside their house,
especially after lunch. When Mom asked where theyd been, Dee said
the viaduct or the slope by the train station.
Dont go near the edge, Mom would say, frowning. Keep
off the tracks.
Dee shook her head in a solemn promise.
One day she announced that Mickey wanted to get married when they were
“There’s no way on earth,” Mom said.
She was shocked by her mother’s vehemence. “How come? You like Mickey,
don’t you? You like his mom.”
“You’re too young to think about marriage, little girl.”
The two families lived next door in the one row of houses still standing.
At night she heard Mickey’s parents bumping into walls and screaming,
and the next morning his mother came over to drink coffee and show Mom
her bruises. Mom wheedled Dad to talk to Mickey’s father.
“It’s none of our business,” Dad said. “Stay the hell out
When Dee was old enough for kindergarten, their family moved to Price
and she pretty much forgot Mickey and his family. They sent a card every
Christmas. Then her parents got divorced and her father ran off to California.
Forced to provide for herself and two children, Mom found a job waitressing
at a steak house. They moved into a tiny apartment without even a sink
in the bathroom. They brushed their teeth at the kitchen sink. She shared
a bedroom with Mom since she was too old to share the sofa bed with her
Mickey’s mother started coming to visit every few months. She was divorced
by now too. While the mothers commiserated over their hardships, their
children trooped to Vincent Price double-feature matinees and roamed the
aisles of Woolworths downtown. Dee dreaded those long Saturdays
with Mickey. It wasn’t as bad when his older brother and her younger brother
came along. With four of them together, nothing personal could happen.
But as soon as Mickey’s brother was old enough to stay home by himself,
he found better things to do than babysit them. Mickey started ditching
her brother so they could be alone together. He loved Dee and planned
on getting married their senior year.
“That’s four years,” she said, awed by the panorama of her future
a landscape vast and empty, with nowhere in it for his presence.
“We could do it junior year,” he said. “But we need your mom’s
permission, I think.”
She couldn’t always dodge his kisses. They were too open and too wet,
heavy with his decaying breath. His body smelled deeply wrong, as though
it were designed by nature to repel her in particular. Once he gave her
Evening in Paris perfume in a blue bottle like the glass they used to
find in Soldiers Summit, and she wondered why he didnt keep
it for himself since it was him who smelled funny. She couldnt ignore
the pheromonal alarm, couldnt stop herself from cringing whenever
he touched her.
Dont you love me?
I just dont want to
Mickey accepted her refusal, but he said, You have to kiss me after
we get married.
What if we dont?
He looked stunned. You love somebody else.
No, I dont love anybody.
Mickey seized her by the shoulders and pulled her against his chest, a
sink that made her heart pound with the opposite of desire, its shadow.
Id rather be dead than live without you, he said.
Dee was dating other guys from her high school, but shed already
decided that she would never get married. She was smart, especially in
science smart enough to win a scholarship to college, her teachers
said and she wanted to be a biologist, not somebodys wife.
Especially not Mickeys wife. Sooner or later he would figure it
During their junior year Mickeys mother found out she had leukemia
and six months to live. She hinted about herself and Mom moving in together
so she wouldnt be alone at the end. Mom said no to that. I
wont be her nursemaid, she confided to Dee. And I cant
be responsible for those wild boys of hers. She sounded almost afraid
of Mickey and his brother.
So Mickeys mother depended on a boyfriend to look after her. As
she grew sicker, the boyfriend emptied her checking account and took off
in her Impala with all her credit cards. His charges on the statements
charted his journey to Kentucky, then Florida, then west again to New
Mexico where the police finally caught up with him. Mickeys brother
threatened to kill the bastard but enlisted in the army instead. Only
Mickey was with her in the hospital when she died.
They drove to Salt Lake for her funeral, a perfunctory service in a funeral
parlor instead of church. Not many people showed up, nobody Dee recognized
except of course Mickey and his brother, who wore his army uniform and
stood manfully beside the casket, a receiving line of one. Mickey wasnt
shaking hands with anybody. Barricaded behind the casket, bawling with
grief, his face blistery red and torrents of snot flooding his lips, he
seemed oblivious to their eyes and judgment. But when his smudged eyes
met Dees, he silently pleaded with her to cross the body of his
dead mother and rescue him from despair. He had no other reason to live.
She said, Mickey, Im sorry, and stepped aside with her
younger brother while Mom offered her condolences. She took care not to
look at him anymore.
That was it, she thought. Now he knew they would never be married.
A month after the funeral, Mickey came knocking on their door. Dee glanced
up from the Star Trek episode she was watching with her younger brother.
Neither of them stirred.
Mom hurried from the kitchen, scowling at their laziness, and yanked the
door open. What in the world! she said. Howd you
I rode the Greyhound.
Well, how come you didnt let us know you was coming?
She stood in the doorway, wiping her hands on a striped dish towel.
I didnt want to cause any bother, Mickey said, craning
to see beyond her head. Its just a mile and a half walk from
the depot. Is Dee around? He wedged a shoulder between Mom and the
door jamb and insinuated himself into the livingroom.
It was too late in the afternoon for Mickey to catch another bus back
to Salt Lake. He probably expected to stay overnight, sharing the sofa
bed with her brother as theyd always done when he and his mother
stayed. On those occasions Dee had been bumped to a sleeping bag and the
two mothers had slept together in the bedroom. She felt suddenly afraid
of sleeping in the same apartment with Mickey.
I have to talk to you, he said.
Okay. She scooted over on the sofa to make room for him.
Come for a walk with me.
She glanced toward Mom, appealing for help and getting a watchful stare
that left everything to her. She was old enough to make her own decisions.
Lets wait till after this show, she said.
No. Right now.
I cant hear, her brother snapped. His eyes hadnt
left the TV screen and Dee wondered if he would sacrifice Star Trek
to protect them from Mickey if things went that far. Then she thought
she must be going crazy. Mickeys mother had died, his brother gone
back to the army, he was alone in the world. He needed someone to talk
to. She could at least give him that.
Okay lets go, she said, standing.
Dinners going to be ready in half an hour, Mom said.
You get back here. And dont walk in the park or down by the
Shes safe with me, Mickey said.
They strolled past seedy apartments and bungalows with unkempt yards.
She imagined all the buildings were holes in the ground like the ruins
of Soldiers Summit. They labored uphill toward the park, the brownish
flank of a mountain rising in front of them. The Douglas fir and grass
of the park bordered the dusty hillside of scrub and rabbit weed, a wilderness
where they could disappear. Dee halted at a picnic table near the street.
Come and sit down.
Not here, he said. I want us to be alone.
We are alone.
No were not. He blinked nervously at a driveway across
the street where a man was hosing off his boat.
Dee sat on the picnic bench. What do you want to tell me?
He knelt on the opposite bench and leaned partway over the table. His
eyes had lost their childhood smudge. All their passion had precipitated
out of the blue, bent on her. Why wont you love me?
I dont know, she said. I cant.
Did you ever love me? Back when you promised to marry me.
She remembered their afternoons scavenging the ruined cellars, his breath
stirring against her neck as they snuggled beneath the counter in the
caving restaurant, so close to him it was like being with herself. Was
that love? Mickey, we were four years old.
So whats changed? he demanded.
She couldnt explain how he began to smell wrong, how her skin crawled
when he touched her. We grew up, she said. I want to
live my own life.
Why cant you live it with me?
It wouldnt be mine then.
The planks of the picnic table were painted glossy green. Complicated
swirls of dirt left a record of how the rain had dried. A small revolver
lay on one plank, both of Mickeys hands cupped around its butt.
When had he taken the gun out? Its barrel looked shiny and harmless. Maybe
only a cap pistol. Air whispered against her face, which felt suddenly
stretched and hot like the skin of a beaten drum. Dee wondered if she
should acknowledge the gun.
What you gonna do with your own life, Dee? His sarcasm descended
fiercely on the word own, the heart of all her cruelty.
I want to be a biologist.
Be the mother of my children, he said. Thats biology.
She had nothing to say to that.
Mickey shook his head. My life is over. Everyone I love is dead
or gone away. All I got in the world is you, Dee, and you dont love
me. Theres something wrong with you. Youre incapable of love.
Im sorry, she said.
Im gonna show you what love is.
He pointed the gun. The mouth of its barrel gaped as if to swallow her
whole, and Mickeys inflamed face and chaotic blue eyes took over
the world. Her heartbeat was thumping inside her skull, bludgeoning every
thought as it was born. Caught on the bench, she could neither dive beneath
the table nor jump up and run. She waited numbly for the bullet. His mouth
stretched in a grimace that she failed to recognize at first. Then something
crazy in his eyes dreamy satisfaction, yawning triumph gave
away that he was smiling. Mickey turned the gun on himself, pointing the
barrel underneath his jaw.
Dee went deaf at the center of the blast. It popped like a bubble. There
was blood, a fountain of blood from his splintered face. Her screaming
filled the awful cavity. Gore was flashed across the picnic table. She
stared down at her arms drenched in Mickeys blood and decorated
with tinsels of Mickeys flesh. Then the man whod been hosing
off his boat pulled her clear of the bench and pressed his hand over her
It wasnt her fault. Everything she came to learn about human emotions
and biological drives confirmed her innocence. Every organism on the planet
struggles to thrive. She wasnt alive to be his prey, his host, his
sustenance. And so she thrived. She became an environmental biologist
and married a man whose skin smelled like maple syrup. They had two sons
and a daughter who also thrived. But throughout her life Dee continued
to dream of Mickey. Sometimes in the dreams they were children again,
scouring the open graves of Soldiers Summit. Clutched in her fist,
sometimes, a tiny indigo bottle of Evening in Paris perfume. In scarier
dreams she was only aware of his eyes, smudged with passion, watching
and waiting for her to betray herself with a word, a gesture, and she
felt paralyzed. In the rarest nightmares, the most terrifying, she was
drenched in his blood and he was kissing her not with lips but with the
blasted hole where his mouth had been, whispering Were married
now and now you have to kill me.
Whose voice? Her own or his?
She awoke in a wild panic, clawing at the bed sheets as her lungs clutched
for air. Her husband, startled awake, drew her into his arms and murmured
the reassurances she already knew. It was just a bad dream. A limbic disturbance,
a confluence of chemicals in brain receptors. Nothing more, this stark
and indelible claim.
illustration circa 1902, artist unknown.
Maddox teaches composition at Eastern Illinois University.
Her fiction has appeared in several magazines, including Farmer’s
Market and Yellow Silk. It has been nominated
for a Pushcart Prize and has received a Literary Award and
an Artist’s Grant from the Illinois Arts Council.
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