In a mirrorless psychiatric hospital room, a woman relives her past as images click on in her head like a slide show. She is twelve years old again, forced to grow up too quickly in a world of poverty and misogyny, absent parents and toxic boy cousins, and Soobie, her mentally challenged girl cousin whom she attempts to save but inevitably fails. “Russian Thistle” looks unflinchingly at trauma and the brittleness of humanity, but also captures the tenderness of one’s effort to be good. Intense and graceful, the story moves with a masterful fluidity and sentences so finely chiseled they sing and reverberate. — Guest Judge Ye Chun
The place where you grew up plays like a slideshow on the screen of your eyelids years and more years later, one after another, click and click and click, the pictures coming up in no order, here’s your daddy bringing a lemonade to your mama, here’s grandpop next to the big truck he drove for Sears, that’s Aunt Lavender at her fifth wedding, and one of you as a baby having a bath in a metal washtub under the cottonwood in the backyard. The way a place looks when you turn backwards like that switches on other kinds of memory: the retinas, the plasma, the knees.
You remember how the old cottonwood smelled, something eating it up from the inside, like cancer for a tree, exhaling sickness over you while you ate overdone hotdogs with your cousins. In college horticulture, you learned the problem is called slime flux and is common in certain tree families whose roots have been compromised.
You know a little bit about that kind of thing.
A slide of your daddy sitting in a lawn chair, shirtless, eating a drumstick, shortly before he left to find God, sometime around ‘78. One of mama, asleep in the recliner and still in her janitor uniform, mouth slack and a mug of something that wasn’t coffee balanced on her belly.
Then a picture of cousin Soobie. Soobie-soo. Someone had painted up her face like an owl. You must have done that. Who else. Who. Who?
You asked Pete, the guy you’d been seeing in 1987 if his childhood felt candy-colored at the time, when he was actually living it, and he maneuvers the whiskey away from your hands like you are inebriated and talking nonsense. Well, mine did, you tell him. Which is true about the years before your daddy left. Pete shrugged, which plumped his gut against the table and upended your drink.
You were not going to have that cocktail anyhow. Or tell him why you should not. The barmaid shimmied her rag into the mess. Beneath the table, your belly popped open the snap of your jeans.
The eastern mountains in your hometown looked purple and pink at sunset. Edible, your child-self would pretend, just like the Big Rock Candy folk song, and they were even named in Spanish for a fruit with rosy flesh. Your daddy explained it to you once, something about the length of light waves at that particular angle and the reflective minerals in the granite. Watermelon. Sandias. Brightest in late summer.
The hospital shrink asks you about your early years, but you cannot answer. Okay, let’s make a picture of where you grew up, she directs, and the hospital paints, dull and cheap, will not shine like those candy mountains, so you grab old magazines and tear out photos in colors that might work, mauve sweatshirts and magenta jogging shoes, sofa pillows in a pink that is almost red, purple jars of jam, bleached blue Levi’s, and the shreds of all these false things, pasted down flat, will come close enough.
How lovely. I did not know you were an artist, she says.
You next take the paintbrush. Drag it through the toad-colored green, the piss yellow. Wipe out the mountains with the color of a wound that has groveled for five days.
When the shrink leaves you can shut your eyes again, take a closer look at those slides. Soobie. Always Soobie. Click. Click. You were the same age, but she was shorter, plump, and wore a plastic bib with a pouch at the bottom to catch her drool. She played with all the cousins in the yard, running just behind, the tail of a frantic kite. She hated shoes, but never learned to avoid the sticker patch by the carport and would stop whenever she had one in her foot, flapping her hands until somebody came to help. It was you who removed the pain, and she would kiss you on the cheek. When she was not looking, you wiped it away.
The problem with Soobie’s drool was the smell. Her teeth were bad, Kool-aid in her baby bottle for years and years, but nobody could find a dentist willing to work on a child ”of limited ability”. Soobie could not vocalize, so how would a dentist know when something hurt?
The problem with the hospital is that the shrink will come around any old time, no appointment system, so you cannot get ready. If you were going to her office, like a regular kind of deranged person, you would start preparing the day before. Laying out shirts on the bed, redoing your ponytail. Her face wears glittered lipstick, and eyebrows skinnied into insect legs. You don’t know what your own face looks like right now. There are no mirrors here. She whirls her wedding ring around her finger.
You tell the shrink about looking at slides inside your eyelids. Doesn’t everyone do that, you ask, a way of flipping through things you remember about growing up? There’s cousin Davy, the biggest, prettiest of them all, who went off to California to model men’s suits. He came back with seashells in his pockets. Reach deep, Davy told the kids. Deeper. The best ones are at the bottom.
Soobie’s seashells in an old plastic margarine tub on her dresser.
Davy. Cutoffs with no underwear. Reach deep, kids.
The shrink nods nod. This is all so very interesting. She probably means: unbelievably, cable-television sick. Or: it happens to everyone. Maybe these are the same thing.
Soobie wandered, far sometimes. You would carry the tub of shells, rattle it. Go get Soobie. C’mon, Soobie-soo, come back. It’s so hot today. You must be thirsty.
Pete clinked his fingernails against the side of his glass. It was your ninth date, and he felt like celebrating. Nine is lucky, he claimed. He finished his Seagrams and made that aaaaaaah sound at the end, like he was both satisfied and ravenous. He looked you over and loitered on your chest, which was about five hormonal weeks bigger than you wished. He shimmied a wink at you, kind of a twitchy thing, like the turn signal on your crappy Honda, and loosened his lips in a way that was meant to be sexy. The bottom one had a slug of lime pulp stuck to it.
You ran to the ladies’ room.
The barmaid was in there, the one who cleaned up your spilled highball, washing her hands. She listened to you vomit.
Eventually, you were empty.
That guy you’re with the father? The mustache?
She nodded. She just knew.
You told the barmaid the place where you grew up had rock candy mountains. She wiped your face with her apron.
Maybe you should go back there, honey.
Click. Soobie’s birthday, a piñata, pregnant with sweets, hanging from the cottonwood. Grandpop shooing off the boy cousins. Your mama zipping on her bank-janitor coveralls. Sunday overtime, already late. Your daddy exactly nowhere.
Click. Davy laying out on top of the pickup, darkening his suntan, the boys peeling off their sticky tank tops, doing the same.
A thunderstorm like asphalt falling.
Everyone toweling off in the kitchen after. Everyone except Soobie the wanderer, the poor wretch, the pobrecita. Go find her. Bring her back on home. Again.
That morning you’d stopped Soobie from eating roly-poly bugs. The boy cousins had filled a cereal bowl with them and given her a spoon. Soobie cried until you gave her a corner of the Hershey bar you’d buried under your bras. Growing boobs early ran in the family, which was helpful only because you were skipping eighth grade and going straight to high school at the end of summer. Soobie wore one of your old ones, a Kmart bargain made bigger with three safety pins and a shoelace in back.
Click. Davy unlatching your bra from behind, smooth as a mosquito through your damp shirt, the boy cousins hooting and high-fiving.
How old was Davy at the time, the shrink asks, and you couldn’t say for sure, somewhere between eighteen and forty. You were twelve and had no measurements for these things. He had whiskers. He had a motorcycle. A big silver lighter in his back pocket that the boy cousins arm-wrestled for the right to hold.
You left the ladies’ room after the barmaid told Pete to get lost. He stuck you with the tab. Don’t you worry about that, sweetie. She gave you Sprite in a to-go cup. Patted you on the hand. Here. Eat some pretzels, settle the stomach. You take care, now.
Pete has let the air out of your front tires.
Davy wanted to be a stunt man in Hollywood, you tell the shrink. That is why he went to California sometimes to pose in catalogs. That is why he bought a motorcycle. Before Soobie’s party, working on his wheelies and skids and hill jumps and spins on the mesa. The cousins perched on Butt-Crack Rock, watching.
Soobie was not allowed to go with you, with the boys. She wandered too close to snakes and strangers. Hold this, you said, giving her a box of birthday candles. Stay here on the porch. Wait for your party.
The cousins yelled things from the top of the rock that Grandpop would have belted them for: fuckyeah and goddam and sonofabitch. Davy knifed himself across an old construction mound sideways, trying to spray them with gravel and sweat. His front tire hit a piece of scrap metal and burst.
In midair he was a frayed old towel, tumbling and folding.
You ran through the scrub back to the house, with your longest legs, your loudest yell. You ran past Soobie dabbing her fingers in the colored rainwater below the piñata. Licking them clean.
Grandpop staggered the wheelbarrow out to the mesa and dragged Davy into it. A length of Davy’s leg bone stuck out through the skin, a pale, stiff snake. His nose sagged to the left. One of the cousins collected Davy’s teeth in the lid of the big silver lighter. A neighbor drove Davy and Grandpop to the hospital. You were left home in charge. Baby oil took the piñata stains off Soobie’s mouth and hands. The poor old ruined thing, a giraffe maybe, gave lazy birth to a pile of damp Sweet-Tarts. The cousins devoured them.
After it all, you made Soobie a birthday treat out of a chocolate pudding cup, a candle stuck in the middle. You sang to her, softly, the two of you in a closet so the cousins wouldn’t hear, as the candle sunk into quicksand. Then you both scooped up pudding with your fingers until it was gone.
When Davy came home some weeks later, the cousins lined up next to the sofa where he moaned. Something eggy leaked from the cast on his leg onto old blankets. You look like Soobie, one of the boys said. And he did, eyes swollen and froggy. His jaws were wired together.
The therapist asks, Who were the parents of all those cousins? Soobie was too much for Lavender, so she lived with you. The boy cousins were kids of an uncle you never met. Army. He’d swallowed ammunition like vitamin pills until his insides burst. Sometimes the boys played a game about it, eating Good & Plenty candy and exploding off the couch.
Davy. He showed up after your daddy left. He was just there.
You’d thought Pete might still be there, parked around the corner, waiting, but it was just you, the barmaid inside, and a neon sign. You crossed the street in the dark to see if there was anyone at the service station to help with your flat tires. You yelled through the mail slot, as loud as you could without puking. No one. You left the cup of Sprite on the newspaper machine.
Home was a seven-mile walk past an orchard.
The night smelled of apples.
Crushing Davy’s pain pills into applesauce.
Sucking up the mixture into a straw.
Squeezing out the straw between his lips.
Swallow, Davy. Take the medicine.
His unwashed armpits. His unwashed breath.
Bolting not far enough out of the way when he grabbed.
It must be the drugs the shrink gives you, but you cannot separate words from each other today, piñata, pretzel, Pete, penetration.
You cannot push an answer out into the air.
Maybe we will just draw today. The shrink slides a Burger King cup of pencils your way.
On her legal pad, you wobble out a diagram of slime flux, cells knitted into foam that leaks from the tree’s scar to the ground below and smothers what grows there. You label the diagram and list the trees most vulnerable: linden, mulberry, cottonwood.
You must know a lot about botany, she says.
Horticulture, actually. You majored in it, but the word has too many consonants, and all you can manage is whore.
What? The shrink holds her pen like she might peel an apple.
I can find the whore at any party, Pete said.
Inside of you, leaves fall.
A car slowed halfway past the apple orchard. The barmaid. I thought that was you, darlin’, she yelled. Get in. But you waved her on. Along the way, bleeding began, a shedding, a release. You reached inside your jeans, touched the spillage with your fingers, and tasted it. There would be nothing of Pete left.
Three miles, five miles, seven, and you were walked clean.
Davy got better enough to yell, but couldn’t walk past the front door. He ordered the boys to find coins under furniture, in ashtrays, at the bottom of the washer, and threw things at them until they ran to the neighbors’ to beg. No one ever had any coins to give. He’d send you for cigarettes anyhow, across the mesa to the truck stop. Shake your butt when you cross the parking lot, put a little twitch in there. Get some old perv to buy you a pack. Camels. He’d make you practice.
Leave Soobie with me. He smiled. I can watch her.
It was a half-hour hike to the truck stop and back. Sometimes a man would get ideas and try to follow you. You’d run through the tumbleweeds, scalp on fire from the sun.
These need about thirty minutes to kick in, the shrink says. They should clear your mind. Swallow. I’ll be back.
Take one, said Pete, the peddler, the prick. A little something to loosen you up. This is a party, baby. Then someone put on Tumbleweed Connection by Elton John. There was dancing. There were other things. You woke with wounds.
Tumbleweeds, alias Russian thistle, have no known pests or diseases. The death of a tumbleweed is both necessary and functional, for only then can it release seeds, often by breaking free from the roots and rolling across arid soil. Your mother claimed to be Russian. Royalty, she told you. Here, can you believe it? In the middle of the fucking dust. The shrink returns. Pretend to sleep. You are a crumbling log. No, no. You are a Russian thistle, from a long and noble line.
Click. Mama opening a letter from daddy. Well. Your father has discovered that God lives in Lubbock. She tore up the letter into a pot of Hormel chili and fed it to the boys.
Click. Mama catching a Greyhound to Santa Fe, better money cleaning hotels.
Click. You, spreading grape jam on white bread for Soobie. Changing her clothes when she peed. Putting maxi pads in her underwear. Telling her, she didn’t understand, to stay away from Davy. Davy on the couch. Bad Davy. School starting in two weeks, wanting Davy to go back to wherever Davys come from, wanting God to appear atop the rock candy mountains and lure your father home.
School. The blue-lined comfort of a book report. Pledging allegiance. Your raised hand, the answers ripening.
Click. Grandpop, cutting down the cottonwood’s sickest limb before it crushed the house. Then he gave you thirty-two dollars, the keys to the pickup. Fishery job. There’s been no money from your mother. Try to keep everyone fed. He would be back in three weeks.
Birds will avoid nesting in trees afflicted with slime flux.
To keep Soobie safe from Davy, you locked her in the laundry room. A glass of coke, a tube of saltines. Just stay here, Soo. I will be right back. I’m going to the store.
You wasted eleven quarters first, calling Santa Fe hotels from the truck stop pay phone. Hello, I think my mama works here? Nobody knew your mama.
You drove the pickup to the grocery, trying to look taller, wearing Grandpop’s Chevrolet cap. You were seventeen, thirty-five, eighty-four years old, because you could not be twelve. A case of store-brand baked beans, three-dozen packets of ramen, and a party-size bundle of frozen wieners cost almost fourteen dollars. Bologna. Two huge boxes of no-name cornflakes. Powdered milk. Toilet paper. Spaghetti-O knockoffs. Four loaves of past-date white bread, contorted and dry. Dish soap, ninety-nine cents. The boys could bathe with it if they bothered. That’s twenty-five-forty-seven, the cashier whispered. You told her to forget the lunchmeat.
The cashier knew you, went to school with your mama, slipped the bologna into your bag so fast it only looks like she rang it up, and put a pack of Chiclets in there. For the girl, she mouthed, and you knew she meant Soobie. Three dollars left over, and seventy-eight cents. Two bus tickets to Lubbock cost more. So did a tank of gas. Over, under, around, through the rock candy mountains, to find your Daddy who knew God.
When you got home, Soobie was not in the laundry room. You shook the bowl of shells, rustled the candy wrappers. Come to me, Soobie-soo. Soobie was not anywhere.
* * *
If you ever want to leave this shithole, your daddy once said, that’s the direction you go.
You were seven or eight, standing at a split-rail fence, petting some rich person’s horses. He pointed to the mountain. See, he said, that’s east, right? And that slice in the stone, where it goes white, kind of a fingernail-shaped ridge? That is where the canyon begins, he told you, and the road gets narrow, one lane each way. Keep going. Past the sheep farms and mobile home parks and junkyards, and, hell, thirty-odd hairpin curves, and you’ll get to the widest, flattest, longest stretch you can imagine. Drive and drive, and keep driving, and next comes Texas. Take you a whole day. The other side of those mountains never turns pink, though. That’s what you lose for leaving.
You had not yet been on the other side of anything.
Paper, pencils, probing. The shrink, telling you to write down five things about Soobie. You sketch a cottonwood leaf instead, a caterpillar ravaging its zigzag edge. Do you want to find the other side of this breakdown, she asks you, or do you like the psych ward? You want to stay here? Put down roots? Ten words, she says. Write ten words.
Root rot. Slime flux. Disease. That is five. Fine, you think. Fine. Five more: mute short dumb lost gone. And then, because there is more to remember: Search news dogs dark find. Mesa truck sex girl toy. Dirt cover drag. Blood. And blood. And that is fifteen words, extra credit, A+. But you are still on this wrong side of that mountain.
Ah, the shrink says. Now we are getting somewhere.
You had kept your daddy’s map in your head all that time. East, the canyon, the cows, then windmills and the empty fullness of a Texas horizon. Leave the groceries for the boys. Put clothes in a sack, toothbrushes, a roll of toilet paper. Soobie’s shells. An old detergent jug full of water. One loaf of the stale bread. Your science fair trophy. The Chiclets. Put Soobie in the Grandpop’s truck. Drive to the truck stop and park. Stay in the truck, Soo, chew your gum. You will walk through the diner like you are just going to the ladies’ room and palm a few tips off of tables, a dollar, a dollar, a dollar, and put enough gas in the tank, you hope, you hope, and a dollar. You had never done that kind of thing, but if anyone caught you, well, they caught you. But you were twelve and sixty-three and forty-eight, and mostly invisible in a greasy cap. Click. Two half-eaten hamburgers, hidden in the hem of your shirt. That was your stupid plan. Lubbock. You and Soobie. One whole day.
Click. The boy cousins on top of Butt-Crack Rock, telling uniforms and flashlights about a girl who could not talk but could cry. About Davy yelling at the boys to break the lock on the laundry room door and bring Soobie, he is bored and needs something to do. And then he sleeps, and then the boys go outside to set tumbleweeds on fire and roll them at Soobie until she runs and runs and cannot be seen. And there was a truck stop. And there were men. And there is a long road out of town.
These things were not your fault, the shrink says. A girl of twelve cannot manage the whole world.
But a girl of twelve might try.
You had come back for Soobie with seven dollars’ worth of gas, a comic book, and a grilled cheese with one side of the rye missing. East, one whole day. Texas and God and a daddy who might have a bed for them. While the cousins told the cops about Soobie and underwear and motorcycles and Good & Plenty bullets and Davy, the sun painted the mountain the color of lip gloss and nail varnish. You would not ever see those boys again, or the cottonwood, or Davy, except inside your own closed eyes.
After this, God reached down into Lubbock and smacked your daddy a good one about duty and disaster and death, direct enough orders that he got on a Greyhound bus and showed up in the front yard of your foster family’s home. There was no more Soobie, no more house and carport, no more Russian thistles, but there was tuna casserole and a Sears bedroom suite, and Mrs. Halliman, who drove seven kids to school and then swim practice in her station wagon and was teaching you to knit. Your daddy knelt right there on the crab grass and started a prayer, and for the first time in your life, you saw the top of his head, hammy and damp under not enough hair. No one ever found your mama. No one ever spoke a funeral over Soobie.
Your daddy drove back to God.
There are girls in foster homes who go off to small-town colleges and learn to read trees, who listen to them tell of droughts and locusts and small children atop their arms. There are girls who grow themselves up among the chicken fried steak and polyester of good-doers, and girls who revise the facts of their lives until a simple stanza holds enough truth. You grew up in the sweet shade of a mountain that could turn colors. You had cousins. One of them died.
You will not ever go back to the mountain, where Davys and more Davys and Petes, and kids with Soobie’s wide face and pointy eyes shine from the granite facets. But you do go to the quietest corner of a cinderblock room with no mirror, no cutlery, no view of the outdoors and its populace of cottonwoods and ash. No decoration except the slide show behind your eyelids. And there, images showing themselves one after another in the theater of sleep, you find a girl, twelve and sixty-eight and ninety-one of age, who you once knew to be good.
Laura Farnsworth writes and paints from her Colorado home in the company of her three-legged heeler, Penny. Laura explores memory, family and the natural world in her short fiction, following her characters through the excavation of trauma. The unnamed protagonist of Russian Thistle finds delicate fortitude in reliving past events at a cellular, sensory level, surrounded by the Southwest’s tactile landscape. Laura’s work has appeared in Western Humanities Review, Philadelphia Stories, and Aquifer. Her current projects explore autoimmunity and healing through short story, visual art, and essay.