Noman’s Land

by Victoria Campbell

 

Before the rabbits and The Burning Hills. Before freedom and Girl Scout cookies and a shining tooth. Before bed sores and Conquering the Darkness.

Before all of that was this:

The headlight beams from Steve’s red dually pickup cutting across the two-lane highway, smell of honeysuckle rising through rolled-down windows as Tammy Wynette urged women all around the world to stand by their men. Steve in a cowboy Frankenstein costume, face painted green with plastic bolts jutting from neck and forehead. In the passenger seat I was his gruesome bride. The yellow eyes of small animals flashed in the dark, and, overhead stars burned white in an East Texas sky.

We were maybe talking about the drunk scarecrow or maybe planning a trip to Galveston with the money from the costume contest, or maybe we were silent, letting Tammy say the words for us. Maybe he was watching my face under the beehive wig, or maybe it was the heat from my hand on his thigh.

There was no maybe about the deer, no maybe about the truck skating across the dark road and through the guardrail, no maybe about the jack that, rattling loose in the bed, shattered the back window before burrowing into the fine bones of Steve’s skull.

#

At a dirty little dive bar tucked into the curve of Manchaca Road, the walls are plastered with old beer advertisements: “It works every time” and “It’s what your right arm is for” and “This one has the touch!” The bartender, Dwayne, pours with a heavy hand and the jukebox warbles retired country songs. Shuffleboard pucks click and flick flashes of light on the far wall as they spin down sanded tables. It was here I’d met Steve, handsome in a square-jawed, scarred palm, cowboy-hat-wearing kind of way I’d never known. Steve who approached me with a line that begged for an eye roll, but I fell for it. “You tell your momma I’m gonna marry you one day.”

#

As a green girl, I used to dream of the day I would dust the sand of the island from the soles of my shoes. In July, I made the drive from Massachusetts to Austin in two days. As I travelled south, the mountains fell away and the land stretched flat and green, the shadows of towering crosses rotating with the crawl of a blinding sun. By the time I arrived, I missed the scent of the sea, the salt that coated doorknobs and eyelashes.

#

Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t celebrate birthdays because the only two mentioned in the Bible end in bloodshed. Steve grew up this way, without candles and cakes and animal-shaped piñatas spilling miniature Milky Ways and Blow Pops. I told him about my own birthdays on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, lazy late August days on secret beaches, fat-bodied gulls circling close to snatch slivers of cake from sticky fingers. I bought Steve a cupcake from Whole Foods for his birthday, a big chocolate one with a spiral of tooth-numbingly sweet icing climbing to a perfect peak. Steve laughed as the trick candle sparked again and again.

#

Steve’s ex-wife called him again on our two month anniversary. The first time she was angry. Now she was sorry. That night over dinner at Second Street Kitchen, I peeled mussels from their boomerang shells. We sat in the cooling late September night as clusters of tourists watched bats rise from Congress Avenue Bridge in a black cloud. After a second bottle of wine, I pushed Steve to tell me about his wife. He spoke of his three month marriage to Marianne, telling me how they fell apart faster than they began. I asked him why they separated, and he shrugged. “It was an impulsive thing to do.” The lights from a police cruiser painted the street red then blue.

#

Steve waited on the toilet with his face upturned. On his unlined forehead, I grooved deep creases and riddled his smooth skin with scars. With eyelash glue, I attached foam bolts from the costume store and smeared green paint from brow to chin. When I was done, Steve stood beside me, yesterday’s monster in a pair of Wranglers.

#

Haphazard clowns and pairs of mini-skirted Lady Liberties gathered around the skeletal emcee as he announced the winner of the costume contest. When our names were called for best couple, Steve pulled me forward, and we were presented with a check for two-hundred dollars. The Marilyns and JFKs and Ketchups and Mustards and Berts and Ernies sighed then the band wailed the lights faded, and we were again on the slick dance floor surrounded by ghosts and flaking zombies. Frankensteve grinned at me, his black scars smudged.

#

Steve’s mother’s name is Ruth Ann, but she tells me to call her Auntie Em. We meet for the first time in a pea-green hallway. Auntie Em is sixty but looks eighty. Wrinkles hammock from chin to cheek, and a gold tooth sparks in the back of her mouth. Steve is her baby, her last child of fourteen. She’s already lost two girls, the youngest as an infant and the second to anorexia. Her oldest son is in prison for statutory rape. “I haven’t been to visit him in two years.” She tells me these things with eyes locked on the silent television as her ventriloquist dummy mouth moves up and down. Night shift nurses pass in pastel scrubs. Their shoes squeak on linoleum. A muted weatherman predicts flash floods for Austin. Auntie Em reaches for me, and, in the fluorescent light, the veins in her papery hands glow Caribbean blue. “I’ve been praying something awful.”

#

Something really awful? Before calling 9-1-1, I flipped down the visor mirror to make sure the blood on my face was not my own.

#

Steve’s brother Jake wears a blue button-down shirt that strains against wide shoulders. I have met him once before at a barbeque at a friend’s house in South Austin where he called Steve Stevie and insisted on adding handfuls of sugar to the thickening sauce. It’s not just birthdays that Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t believe in—it is Girl Scout cookies and tattoos and blood transfusions, and Jake is here in the waiting room to remind his mother of these things.

#

My phone vibrates every morning at six, hours before the sun has bloodied the sky, and I answer out of a strange sense of duty. Auntie Em updates me on Steve’s arterial line reading, on his inter-cranial pressure, on his heart’s rate and rhythm. Then she tells me about her dreams, unbidden images from childhood that come in bursts and linger unwanted through the day. For a week, she dreamed of nights spent with her father on the Mulhern’s rolling land, flashlight illuminating branches and grasses and rabbits. Beside her, her father would fire rounds from his shotgun into low brush until a half-formed circle of animals lay at their booted feet.

#

At the 04 Lounge, Dwayne slides me a vodka soda. A bearded man leaning over the scarred pool table sinks red, then purple, then green. Dwayne asks me where Steve is, and I shrug. “He’s home,” I say. “We broke up,” I say. “He left me.” Dwayne pulls on one long black dread and pours two amber shots of Jameson. “To freedom,” he says. “To freedom,” I repeat. Our glasses collide. The whisky blazes down my throat and coils in my stomach like a viper.

#

With My Hands. Off the Mangrove Coast. End of the Drive. To Tame a Land. The Burning Hills. High Lonesome. These hard books spined in red, yellow, and blue are piled beside Steve’s hospital bed. Tales from his childhood, books of cowboys wandering wide open green spaces under an ever-burning yellow sun. Sharp-shooters tearing through a one-horse town. I read at random from dog-eared pages, and my voice falls in rhythm with the pace of the ventilator. I read until my words run together and the letters blur. I leave the room saddled with images of slim-waisted men riding fast down rocky cliffs. Not once do I look toward the bed. In the cold hallway, clock hands spool forward.

#

Early November brings cold to Texas. Things die suddenly in the first freeze: wildflowers and grass and the small herb garden on my porch. Frost laces the serrated leaves of basil. On the news, record lows are reported throughout the country. In the Carolinas, three-hundred-year-old Live Oaks split down the middle from the weight of ice coating branches.

#

I quit smoking three years ago, but, outside work, I bum cigarettes from old men and janitors. I lean against cold bricks and blow plumes of smoke that are snatched away by the wind. The smell of cigarettes clings to my hands and clothes and hair. If Steve were to wake up blind, my scent would be a stranger’s.

#

Nights when the wind blew from the north and fires burned on Noman’s Land, my mother would be happy. Red pinpricks on a black horizon meant open windows and a Cat Stevens record spinning on the turntable. We knew the Navy used the uninhabited land as a practice range. Low-flying planes dropped ticking cargo, scorched scrub and sand. As children, my mother told us a different tale—a story about those who slipped away from the island’s embrace, wanderers who would spend the rest of their lives trying to return, but would make it no further than Noman’s Land where they lit fires and stared with longing at the outline of the island’s curved shore.

#

“He would’ve woken up by now if he’d had that transfusion.” Two nurses in bright scrubs talk over Steve as they change the bandages on his arm. The trash bag sighs as gauze hits the plastic bottom. “He’s going to wake up anyway,” Purple Scrubs says. The bed groans as Steve is rolled to rest on his side. “Not the same, though,” she adds.

#

I miss a morning call from Auntie Em and don’t return it—the voicemail is long and breathy and edged with irritation. She is sure Steve is, at last, waking up. She is sure that I should be by his side. I turn my phone off and refill the tub until steam billows from the smooth surface. I prune until the water’s cold again.

#

In Texas, the weather is fickle. By mid-November, the earth is alive, stalks of grass running tall and green. My parka hangs forlornly in the back of the closet. At Barton Springs, men and women with carnival food tattoos splash in plastic pools. Underwater, the light of the sun floats in interrupted rays. Legs kick, trailing glistening bubbles. Although the water on my tongue is fresh, it tastes like home.

#

Auntie Em lends me a book from her home called Conquering the Darkness. It is full of helpful bedside tips like “Play his favorite music!” and “Take time to visit the hospital!” and “Remind him of his favorite things!” Steve’s favorite things: high-strung horses and large-breasted women. Chilled Coors Originals and the chant of a Sunday rodeo crowd. Nothing else comes to mind.

#

Outside the automatic doors, rain comes in fat drops and steam hovers over scalding pavement. As cars whir by on the busy street and iridescent grackles mimic cries of fire alarms, I remember the silence of snow. Street lights flicker orange then burn red against the velvet night.

#

Before plastic bolts and pastel scrubs. Before cigarettes and clouds of bats and Westerns. Before bandages and a beehive wig.

Before all of that was this:

Panes jitterbugged in their frames as a heavy wind eased down from the north. Under my bare feet, overgrown grass scratched at calloused soles. Across the lapping pond, the red fires of Noman’s Land sparked against darkness. I closed my eyes, wanting to open them to the glinting chrome of a skyline, the vibrating asphalt of a never-ending highway. Wanting to forget the forks of dirt roads and the spit of the sea, the rust of lobster traps and the shadow of wetsuits swinging like noosed men. Me, wanting to slip from the dips of the island’s ridged spine.

And then I did.


VICTORIA CAMPBELL holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Central Florida and serves as Fiction Editor of the Florida Review. Her work has appeared in, or is forthcoming from, Green Mountains Review Online, Blue Earth Review, and Bayou Magazine. She lives and writes on the island of Martha’s Vineyard.

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