To See What Yields
by Laura Citino
It’s not that Maggie loves jazz, but some evenings she turns on a sexy record, cranks it up so loud it fills the whole apartment. She hits the repeat button so just the one cut plays. She comes up behind Max wherever he is, doing the dishes or playing video games, loops her arms around his skinny waist, and nibbles at his ear. They go to the mattress while the song plays half a dozen times. When Max leaves for work, Maggie lets the dog outside and before she does anything else, she spends about twenty minutes honking long noiseless breaths into her coppery old saxophone, which she keeps in the bedroom closet.
Yesterday around dawn the dog brought back a dead squirrel. Max had only been home for an hour or so but was already dead to the world, face down on the mattress, drooling. Maggie got up to let the dog in. His nails made happy clicks on the tile floor. He jumped up and tried to lick her face. “I don’t think so, buddy,” she said. She leaned out the door, hoping for a glimpse of sunrise over the maple trees. A ragged bundle of fur poked out of the grass. Bristly tail, torn flesh pink and red. She tramped down to the yard and grabbed the snow shovel from its place by the yew bush. She tossed the dead animal over the back fence. The dog barked once behind the screen door and then was mute.
Lately, Maggie has taken to driving the country roads at night. The department store only needs her part time and once Max heads off to his graveyard shift at the parking garage downtown, sci-fi novel tucked under his arm, she is home alone. She twiddles around on the saxophone until it gets dark and then gets into her uncle’s old burgundy Buick. She cruises down Packard and gets on Old M12 to Tecumseh. It doesn’t take long to get out of the city. The landscape streams by in bruise blacks and blues. Driving this way grants anonymity and erasure: Michigan's back roads are like Indiana's are like Ohio's, Washington's, and probably Florida's for all she knows. These county lines and state borders are irrelevant, just abstract concepts marked on maps stuffed inside glove compartments. All she sees in front are headlights, the milky wash of beech trees on either side of the dirt packed roadway.
Lately Max has been making noise about The Next Step. They have been together since senior year of high school. She's not sure exactly what he means, but she thinks it might involve harnesses, a swing in the bedroom. Maybe a little bit of choking, if they could handle that.
Three years ago, Max brought Dieter home wrapped in his Lions sweatshirt, mewling like a kitten with eyes not yet open. He found him in a cardboard box by the dumpsters at work. At the time Maggie was unemployed. All evening long she would snuggle the pup, feed him hotdogs and kibble softened with water until he could handle solid food. Her mother warned her that no matter much how you trained them or how young you got them, pit bulls were dangerous animals. “They’ll turn on you,” she said. “Don’t ever look him in the eye.”
His hair is a little wiry like steel wool, a black and red tone that seems to change with the season. When he comes back from his nighttime roaming, there is all manner of flora stuck in his coat: burrs, dried leaves, grass stems. One warm windy night he came back covered in apple blossoms, the petals resting gently on his back as if he had tiptoed home.
Tonight Maggie is circling the farms south of Albion. She has driven this part of the road so many times, she has memorized each turn and curve. Square windows light up orange on the fronts of houses. She puts her hands at ten and two, adjusts so the wheels are driving true, and flicks off her headlights. In the soft passing of an instant, the car is now surrounded by total black.
Max has long put his demons to bed. He doesn’t smoke and has forgiven his father. Maggie helped him conquer one but not the other. He keeps his old drum kit in the garage behind their house and takes time on the weekends to practice fills and syncopation.
He got into kink as a way to explore his issues with control and power in a safe space. He says it's not about violence. He says, “It’s more tension release than anything.” Maggie nods. She gets it. She says the same things. She is a good submissive because she understands that she is truly the one in control. When Max whales away on her and calls her names, she keeps her head. She has the power to say no, stop, too much.
Max will rub her belly and look at her with hopeful, childish eyes. “You want to have a baby with that thing in the house?” she asks, gesturing toward Dieter. He grabs her wrist. She jerks it away. It is striped red and white from his fingers and they’re at it again. They lock Dieter out of the bedroom until they’re finished.
Maggie knows you’re not supposed to let a dog out at night. They’re not like cats. You can’t just expect them to slink unnoticed through the night, avoiding streets, avoiding cars, avoiding people. Her father says that if the dog keeps getting out, no leash and no master, looking hungry, somebody's going to shoot him. With all his seventy pounds of muscle and energy, she sees no choice. Dieter has destroyed more than one futon. Once he swallowed two AAA batteries and had to be taken to the vet to get his stomach pumped. It seems better to let him roam. She tells herself that if something does happen, it’ll be meant to happen. He is an animal; it was how he was built to live.
The Michigan Driver’s Manual, What Every Driver Must Know (2011), has several pages devoted to the event of a “Vehicle/Deer Collision.” Deer are everywhere in this part of the state. Rules include:
At night, be alert for shining eyes at the roadside.
Do not rely on gimmicks: flashing your high beams or honking your horn will not deter deer. It will only take up your time and focus.
Do not attempt to brake, slow down, or swerve.
This one gets repeated. Do not swerve. Do not swerve.
This section simply expounds upon an indelible piece of rural wisdom: Don’t chicken out. If you’re going to hit a deer, hit the damn thing. Really gun it. If you hit the deer straight on with enough force it’ll bounce up and roll off the hood of your car, or even split right in half upon impact, deader than a side of beef. If you pussyfoot around for the sake of your tremulous constitution, if you try to slow down or brake, the deer will not only stay semi-alive but also crack right through your windshield. The half-dead, wildly bleeding animal will entangle itself in the broken glass and tear its body into the sharp metal edges of your car, kicking and making an unholy racket. That is what you get for being scared.
Do not swerve.
When she met Max she was a B-minus student and a virgin without a driver’s license; a mediocre musician who couldn’t swing; a late bloomer through and through. They have been through graduation and half-assed attempts at college together, then community college, now the occasional skills test at the temp agency, but only last year did he get tired of driving her ass around. He wanted her to be more self-sufficient. Not have to sit long minutes at the derelict bus station across from the Deja Vu. He picked up a copy of What Every Driver Must Know and took her to the parking lot of the mega church on Gulfside. He gently curled her fingers around ten and two and told her when to accelerate, when to brake. Later, he taught her about driving in the country with the headlights off. He had grown up in a tiny town off the highway and dark-driving was the farm kids’ version of chicken. He said even though you couldn’t stand it for more than a few seconds, it felt like you thwarted space and time. He also said it was scary as fuck.
In the last few weeks Dieter has brought back several squirrels, a few mice, something that looked like it may have once been a possum.
She has been sneaking out of bed just before dawn to sit on the back porch, smoke a cigarette, and wait for him to come back with his catch. He drops it on the ground and smiles a lolling doggy smile. Look. Look what I brought back for you. But when she goes to pick it up, he growls at her, his neck stiff and teeth bared. She jerks back but doesn't feel frightened. That was her mistake. She crossed a line. Good boy. His eyes are trained at her knees.
With the headlights on, the sense of distance traveled is clear. A precise amount of dirt flies under the car wheels. Trees, bushes, the grooves in the road materialize in perfect rhythm of feet to minutes to miles per second. Maggie’s body sags into the leather seat. The air flying around the car buoys her up and pushes her down. She knows exactly how fast she is going, and how far.
But with the lights off the timbre in the car changes. With darkness in front and behind, the vehicle might as well be standing still and inside she is the only thing with a heartbeat, fluidity, speed. She tenses. She wants to make it past Max’s couple-of-seconds limit. The engine vibrates but aside from that, there is just her and she has never felt so small.
What Every Driver Must Know says that if you lose control of the vehicle, aim for something soft and yielding. A bush, for example. Hit it with a glancing blow off to the side. Never straight on. Maggie knows this would not work with deer. If she encounters one of those, she intends to hit it, hard.
Max is tired of fighting. He says he feels shitty yelling and stomping and slamming doors about something so abstract, a possibility, a not-yet but maybe-someday. This is the last time he wants to talk about it. “It’s your decision,” he says. “It’s your body.”
Maggie is not entirely comfortable with him saying these things so she has a long list of reasons at the ready: financial instability, lack of good parental role models, the dog and his bloodlusts, lack of real space in the apartment, their apparent inability to do the dishes or buy food that doesn’t come in a just-add-water pouch. Max is never around. Maggie is never around. It’s too big of a change. This isn’t the time. “Not just for me,” she says. “For us.”
“You’re overthinking it. People say you never feel ready,” he says. They are lying on the couch, stretched out long side by side, his arms bowed around her. She lifts her back up off the cushion so he can slide her shirt off. He says, “And I think we’d make great parents.” Her hands have assumed their automatic position on his back, the fingers pressed into the hollows of his ribs. He asks, “Don’t you think so?” She brings her hand up and holds his face for a moment in her palm. The beauty of being with someone since high school: you know all the soft spots. You can bring them to their knees in seconds flat.
She tells herself, be gentle.
Dieter knows some tricks. Maggie bought a book and a box of those chewy kibble treats that look like bits of bone with marrow through the middle, and one afternoon while Max was sleeping she taught the dog how to sit, lie down, and roll over. Then a two-parter: stick ’em up (both paws up) and bang-bang (fall down and flip over, paws in the air). She liked that one the best. Bang bang! she yelled, making a pair of pistols with the thumb and forefinger on each hand. She tried to teach him how to balance a cookie on his nose without eating it. She leaned down to place the treat on his snout and he snapped at her. Just a few teeth marks on her wrist. No blood. She ran it under cold water and watched her skin turn white.
She hits a bump. Enough to rock the car. Her ass flies off the seat and thumps back down. With the lights off there’s not much to see anyway but in her fear she closes her eyes tight. Now she can’t even see inside the car, not the outline of her hands on the wheel, nothing. The car cruises along at a good clip. Maybe it speeds up. The sound of the road underneath the tires is louder, crunchier, rushing.
She takes her hands off the wheel for a moment. Eyes still closed. Like she did the first time Max slapped her, she feels for the small hard knot at the core of herself. The place where you can’t divide anymore, where it’s just pure Maggie. It’s there. A little rattled, like the bump jostled something loose, but there. She puts her hands back on the wheel and opens her eyes to the darkness around her.
Now instead of talking about it, during the few hours they do spend together Max distracts them both by pinning her arms to her sides and bending her over the kitchen table. Spreading her out on the futon. Jacking her up against the wall in the foyer. The shades are always drawn but fuzzy gray sunlight comes through their cracks and corners. He whispers in her ear, asking her if she likes it, if she likes it, if she likes that. She knows that she can say no whenever she likes, that she has total control. Instead she says she likes it, oh, she can’t get enough. She forgets her safe words. She lets him go too far and he makes real bruises in places hard to hide.
She wonders if a little destruction isn’t good for the soul.
She has never actually been in a car crash before.
She cannot imagine experiencing such a thing from the inside, only what it would look like outside: a front end crumpled like a pop can.
And on top of all that, Maggie is ashamed to think about it, but she wonders what would happen if they did conceive a child. Fucking like that. Is that a story to share? Do parents share conception stories with their families, their children? If you get pregnant while riding your boyfriend for hours while his hands are tied to the headboard with his shoelaces, if he comes on your face, if he comes while he’s smacking you and telling you you’re worthless, a worm, scum of the earth, if you need to be called a slut to get aroused at all, well, doesn’t that child grow up with a screw loose?
She has tried feeding Dieter more, then feeding him less. She changed his food and bought him more bones, bigger bones. Once she gave him a whole frozen raw chicken. He licked and nibbled at it for hours, leaving a mangled tangle of bones and sinew in the backyard. She hasn’t mowed back there in a while. She doesn't want to know what she might find. Sometimes big black birds peck and tear at something deep in the long grass.
Today, she lets Dieter in. He paws at her knees. He wants a treat. She gives him one. He begs for another, red tongue panting. She gives him five, ten more, then backs away as he begins to heave and retch on the tile floor. She sits with her saxophone on her lap, watching the whole performance, fingering the keys but unable to remember much besides an E-flat scale. The first thing you learn. She leaves the mess for when Max wakes up. She throws the saxophone in the backseat of the car and goes for a drive.
Here’s how she thinks of it, in the spaces between the sex and the sleep, during all those hours when she is home alone with their big-ass dog: Max sprang into her life at the tender age of nineteen fully formed. Certain of his desires. He says he is ready. He knows what he wants and he is not afraid to go out and get it. Maggie does not believe this is true. When she is on top of him, gouging and slapping and doing whatever else he asks for, she feels as if she is shoving aside piles of cool dark earth. Digging through the layers of his body. She never strikes bottom. There is always more, like trying to make a hole in water. She wakes up close to dawn and he is unreachable in his sleep. She presses her thumb into the softness under his ribs. She wants to bury herself up to her elbows, to feel for that place where you can’t divide anymore. She wants to see what yields.
She has no idea how much time has passed. It is either one minute or six hours. She imagines what she might see if she flips the lights back on. Maybe the landscape has shifted. She could be in deep woods, she could be nearing city limits, she could be off the road entirely. Maybe she’s crossed state lines. Maybe she’s made it all the way to Lake Michigan and soon she’ll see the amber lights of Chicago dancing across the big water.
She holds her breath and flicks on the lights. The landscape is exactly the same and she is going half as fast as she was when she started. Up ahead twin lights prick the darkness. Be alert for shining eyes by the roadside. She tightens her grip on the wheel.
She slips outside, pajama pants tucked into her fur-topped boots and parka flung about her shoulders. These items of clothing are kept on the hooks by the back door even in the summer, for those early mornings when the cool wet washes over the neighborhood. Dieter meets her in the yard and noses her hip. She slips him a piece of cold bacon and leads him away from the possum/raccoon/squirrel left chewed up in the grass.
She ties his collar with a short length of twine and together they walk out of the backyard. The first fingers of light creep over the red-brown rooftops. The sidewalks are empty and damp from the night. He strains ahead on the makeshift leash. She rewraps the twine around her knuckles. In the distance at the top of the hill on Cross Street a cat pauses, silhouetted against the sky, one paw in the air. The dog heaves and pants underneath her hand. She lets him go.
This piece originally appeared in issue 3 of The Intentional.