What Love Is

Mary Maddox

“I’m 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 restaurant’s 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. Dee’s 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 they’d been, Dee said the viaduct or the slope by the train station.

“Don’t 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 grownups.

“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 of it.”

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 brother.

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 Woolworth’s 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 Soldier’s Summit, and she wondered why he didn’t keep it for himself since it was him who smelled funny. She couldn’t ignore the pheromonal alarm, couldn’t stop herself from cringing whenever he touched her.

“Don’t you love me?”

“I just don’t want to—”

Mickey accepted her refusal, but he said, “You have to kiss me after we get married.”

“What if we don’t?”

He looked stunned. “You love somebody else.”

“No, I don’t 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. “I’d rather be dead than live without you,” he said.

Dee was dating other guys from her high school, but she’d 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 somebody’s wife. Especially not Mickey’s wife. Sooner or later he would figure it out.

During their junior year Mickey’s mother found out she had leukemia and six months to live. She hinted about herself and Mom moving in together so she wouldn’t be alone at the end. Mom said no to that. “I won’t be her nursemaid,” she confided to Dee. “And I can’t be responsible for those wild boys of hers.” She sounded almost afraid of Mickey and his brother.

So Mickey’s 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. Mickey’s 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 wasn’t 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 Dee’s, 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, I’m 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. “How’d you get here?”

“I rode the Greyhound.”

“Well, how come you didn’t let us know you was coming?” She stood in the doorway, wiping her hands on a striped dish towel.

“I didn’t want to cause any bother,” Mickey said, craning to see beyond her head. “It’s 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 they’d 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. “Let’s wait till after this show,” she said.

“No. Right now.”

“I can’t hear,” her brother snapped. His eyes hadn’t 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. Mickey’s 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 let’s go,” she said, standing.

“Dinner’s going to be ready in half an hour,” Mom said. “You get back here. And don’t walk in the park or down by the tracks.”

“She’s 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 Soldier’s 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 we’re 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 won’t you love me?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I can’t.”

“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 what’s changed?” he demanded.

She couldn’t 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 can’t you live it with me?”

“It wouldn’t 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 Mickey’s 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. “That’s 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 don’t love me. There’s something wrong with you. You’re incapable of love.”

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“I’m gonna show you what love is.”

He pointed the gun. The mouth of its barrel gaped as if to swallow her whole, and Mickey’s 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 Mickey’s blood and decorated with tinsels of Mickey’s flesh. Then the man who’d been hosing off his boat pulled her clear of the bench and pressed his hand over her eyes.

It wasn’t 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 wasn’t 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 Soldier’s 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 We’re 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.

© Mary Maddox

Barn illustration circa 1902, artist unknown.

Mary 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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