What I think of when I’m thinking of pulling in for a drink are the same things I thought of when I was drinking. Even now, not wanting to pull into these places, I think of how she died.
In this place, you can drive for miles and see only stunted bushes that would have been trees had they grown any other place. What you see, mostly, are all the places to pull into, and the signs you cannot read but know what they say.
I wasn’t there when what happened happened. No one here talks about it. No one was there but me when I did what I did that didn’t kill her, but caused her dying.
Here, jagged lightning lights up the sky with no storm behind.
I cannot read many of the names of the places I’m trying not to think of pulling into, names that will light up in neon as soon as it’s dark.
But I’m learning.
The tree was a million-years-old when I was almost six. It grew straight some of the million years before I was born, then split at the top into a limb reaching for Azzilee’s house and a limb reaching for the road that curved past a graveyard—the road I boiled dust from with my almost six-year-old feet.
The tree was taller than the planted-pines growing in rows around Azzilee’s house, but it had not grown any taller the almost six years I’d been growing. It had not grown, but the limbs were too tall for me to reach. Gray moss hung from both of them.
Azzilee swung in a tire-swing hung from the limb reaching for her house. Even though I’d only grown a year taller, Azzilee was more than a year shorter than me.
I don’t remember what she said that made me stand on the tire-swing and pull on the rope until I swung my elbow over the limb and sat on the limb, kicking my feet. After I did what I did, she said, “You’re not supposed to do that.”
She said, “No one is supposed to do that.”
But she laughed when I wadded gray moss on my head.
She said, “Help me up.”
She could pull herself up the rope only halfway, so I took off my moss-hair and pulled her up, only as heavy as if she had grown more than one year less than me. She sat next to me, and I taught her to wear moss-hair.
I said, “You look like you’re a hundred.”
“Then you’re a hundred and one,” she said.
She said her mama said the tree had been lightning-struck and it never got over it, so it reached two ways. But her mama was not there when the lightning struck, so I don’t know how she was supposed to know.
I itched for days from moss-bugs. They burrowed in my scalp-skin, my shoulder-skin, all the skin I scratched red and redder until it broke and bled. Mama killed the bugs everywhere else with rubbing alcohol, but she had to shave my head to kill the ones living in my scalp.
I hide tiny scars from those days under hair I’ve let grow long.
Even though they are older, those scars aren’t as big as the one from what Lance did to me.
Maybe Azzilee didn’t say anything. Maybe I did on my own what no one was supposed to do.
Lance was one year older than me, but in that year of growing before I was born he grew more than a year taller than me.
We were in the same grade all through school. He said he had let himself fail one year so he could learn more and go to college somewhere far away.
He drew skulls and crossbones in the backs of his textbooks, scrawled words he learned when he was not in class—words his daddy learned in jail, like “shit” and “motherfucker.” He spent bus rides working red and blue faces into his hands in ink from pens he stole from boys more than one year younger than him, tracing over the lines.
Lance learned more than words from his daddy. No boy was as tall as Lance, even older boys. It didn’t matter how old or tall or who their daddies were, he made them all bleed. He caught them in bathrooms where teachers didn’t go, pinned them to stalls scarred with names older than us all, knife-dug deep by boys by then my daddy’s age—almost the age I am now.
He didn’t stop until he broke little bones in his own hands. On bus rides after he caught a boy, he didn’t work at his too-tender hands with stolen pens. He let the ink fade until his bones healed, but he did not wash their blood from his fists. His daddy did not wash their blood from Lance’s shirts.
I learned all about Daddy from Mama, who was the one who didn’t leave the year Azzilee started growing a year after me. Lance said his daddy said his mama left the same night my daddy left.
Mama never shut up about Daddy. But she never talked about his leaving, at least not around me.
Lance never made me bleed.
On the first day of our fifth year of school, he caught me going in the bathroom and punched my ribs with his shoulder. I elbowed him in the back until he folded on the floor, saying, “O God,” over and over to wadded paper towels.
Pissing next to him in the bathroom later that day, he looked at the wall and said, “You’re a tough little bastard,” and nodded at pink piss he didn’t flush.
For the rest of that year in Geography class, we sat next to one another in the back of the room. One day, we played Hangman in my textbook in a game that covered the country.
I don’t remember the teacher’s name, but she knew my name and called it when I won.
She said, “What is the name of the country bordering the United States to the south?”
I saw this country. I saw names of mountains and rivers and cities I couldn’t say, but Hangman covered up the name she needed.
I said, “I don’t know.”
She said what it was that was the answer, but I knew, like everyone knew, that she had never left that place where we all lived.
I read her name in the paper the year she died. It’s not her name I remember, but that she died in the place where she lived all her life.
In another paper, I read Daddy’s name. His had the same initials as mine, but he died in California.
That paper said nothing about Lance’s mama.
Lance’s daddy kept Lance’s mama’s records.
She took the record player, but Lance and me skipped class just to see the men on the sleeves: men Lance’s daddy’s age and my daddy’s age and older, with hair so long and beards so thick we could barely see their faces.
Mama talked about Daddy, but she threw away his things. I couldn’t wear shirts he wore from before I was born like Lance did.
When Mama was out with some man, I dug through her closet and found a Case knife. As worn as the letters were, I could still read them.
I never asked her, so I don’t know if it was his. I kept it in my pocket and trimmed my fingernails with it on bus rides home.
The letters are gone now, but the blade keeps a good edge.
One night, I sliced my palm with my Case and gave it to Lance. He sliced his palm and gave it back, and we shook hands a long time.
I wouldn’t know his face now if he sat on a stool next to me.
Azzilee’s mama took down the tire-swing and hung up a piñata.
But I couldn’t say “piñata.” Azzilee called it a piñata.
Lance swung a rough-cut stick from his daddy’s sawmill, and I just knew, like everyone just knew, that he would be the one to break the piñata.
Someone had blind-folded him. He swung and hit it over and over, but the piñata didn’t break. Maybe because he was blind-folded was why he kept saying “Jesus” and “shit.”
With boys and girls from school there, and with Azzilee’s mama inside her house, Azzilee said, “Lance, you’re not supposed to say that.”
“Shut up,” Lance said.
I said, “Say you’re sorry, Lance.”
He said, “No.”
I grabbed his arm, more muscled than mine, took off the blindfold, and said again what I had said.
He said, “Sorry.” I never heard him say sorry again. He said sorry to Azzilee, who was on that day and for a month the same age as me.
He handed me the stick and tied the blindfold so tight I saw lights. I gripped grass with my toes and swung. I felt the piñata give, felt something bounce off the top of my foot, heard everyone yell.
Azzilee took off the blindfold. The head of the piñata swung from the rope and the boys and girls from school fought one another over candy no one had ever seen and couldn’t read the names of and spit out when it was too hot.
On the last night before our first day of high-school, I swung a glass jar fast enough to catch two lightning bugs. Azzilee screwed on the lid before they flew out.
She was as shorter than I was as she had ever been. She turned the jar in her hand and the lightning bugs lit up her skin browner than mine, even though I stayed in the sun all summer. Her skin stayed brown, but she never stayed in the sun long.
She stayed in her house with her mama most of the time, or in the church no one else went to. Lance said his daddy said that everyone who went to that church prayed not to Jesus but to Jesus’ mama. Mama and me went to the church where everyone prayed to Jesus, and I never saw Lance or his daddy there.
“Can they breathe?” Azzilee said.
She gave me the jar and I took my Case and punched a hole in the lid.
We sat with our backs against the million-year-old tree and watched the lightning bugs fly into the glass over and over, flashing yellow.
She said, “What do they eat?”
“I don’t know. I’ll find out.”
Days later at school, she said there was only one lightning bug in the jar. I said I would catch another one.
But I never did.
Azzilee’s mama’s Bible was halved.
On one side of the page were words I could read, and on the other side were words I couldn’t; words written like the words her mama said that I didn’t understand.
Azzilee turned the words her mama said into words I knew. She said her daddy had learned to say the words I already knew by reading that Bible. He used the words on the side he understood to teach himself to talk the way everyone talked in school and in the church where Mama and me went to hear the preacher say things about what Mama’s Bible said that we couldn’t understand. But Mama’s Bible was not broken in half and we knew all the words. We didn’t have to talk to our preacher through a partition, either.
Even on the side of the page I could read, Azzilee’s mama’s Bible broke up words.
In her Bible, Jesus never said, “I’m.” He always said, “I am.” No one there talked like that. That Bible was supposed to help Azzilee’s daddy, but it didn’t.
The preacher in Azzilee’s church was supposed to help her mama after her daddy died, but he couldn’t. No one was there when her daddy’s truck flipped in a ditch, but the cops said that maybe the sun blinded him going through that curve.
I don’t know if her Bible is supposed to help me turn the words I don’t know into words I already know, but I’m learning.
I’m learning more by sitting on stools in the places I pull into, listening to everyone talk, thinking of these things and not how much I want to say the words I’ve learned to order a drink.
Maybe it would help if I talked to a preacher in one of the churches whose names I’m still learning.
I learned a lot in school.
I learned that the earth is billions of years old, and that the oldest tree anyone ever knew of was younger than a million-years-old. I learned that lightning bugs live just one year, only long enough to “reproduce.” This is what the textbook said in the Science class I let myself fail; the Science class Azzilee skipped for the Science class for everyone a year ahead of her. The textbook also said lightning bugs eat other lightning bugs, but, even among people who were supposed to know, no one was certain.
Lance had drawn his name in big letters inside the back cover of that textbook when we sat next to one another the year before. He traced over letters that looked like the letters on the cover of Azzilee’s mama’s Bible. He worked on those letters most of that year, when he wasn’t cheating from homework I let him cheat from.
The letters on the cover of Mama’s Bible were not as big as the letters on the cover of Azzilee’s mama’s Bible. Azzilee’s daddy’s initials were not on the front cover of her mama’s Bible.
Lance’s daddy taught him about Jesus.
Lance’s daddy knew Jesus was a carpenter, and he said he was like Jesus in that he ran a sawmill. But carpenters build things with wood and Lance’s daddy just cut up wood, so I don’t know how much like Jesus he was. He must have thought Jesus had been to jail, and said things like “shit” and “motherfucker.” Without a Bible, I don’t know how Lance’s daddy taught him about Jesus.
Maybe learning from his daddy without a Bible or a mama and never going to church was just as good as learning from the preacher in the church where Mama and me went with Daddy’s Bible.
Maybe Lance’s mama took their Bible with her.
I learned to put more in jars than lightning bugs.
I learned to drive my truck with my headlights off where cops drove, driving by the light of the moon on the rocks on the road, watching for the flash of headlights around curves.
Lance taught himself to make a tattoo gun from just an ink pen and a little motor he stole from Shop class and some other things he wouldn’t talk about. “Trade secrets,” he said one night while I drove. He passed back to me my jar.
“Tell me,” I said.
“No,” he said. “I can’t have you blabbing to everyone.”
“Who are you going to do first?”
“Why the hell would you tattoo yourself?”
“In case I fuck up.”
“You’re fucked up.”
“Half-lit. I don’t want mistakes on paying customers. People talk.”
“You’re not going to college?”
“Fuck school. This is something I’m good at. I’ll run it out of my house, maybe make enough to leave this shithole.”
“Make enough for two, then.”
“All right,” he said. “I’ll give you one for free, till then.”
“I don’t know of anything I want on me for the rest of my life.”
The road turned into other roads until I couldn’t make out the road it was, even when I turned on my high-beams. Lance held back his head and finished what was in my jar. “What’re you good at?” he said.
I bent over the steering wheel, rested my chin on the dash. “Not a goddamn thing,” I said.
“You can knock hell out of a piñata.”
I had forgotten, but Lance reminded me that no one had ever broken my bones or made me bleed.
I let myself fail classes until I sat next to Azzilee in the front of the room in her classes.
On the last night we were the same age, at the still-summer start of our last school-year, I carved our names in the tree.
I had told Lance and Lance had told one boy and then another, until everyone just knew I had done something with girls my age and younger and older.
But no one must have asked these girls. These girls were the only ones who were there to know I didn’t do what I said I did; something I did with Azzilee the night I carved with my Case my initials above hers in the trunk of the tree.
No one asked, so I told no one that I was the only one there to know that she was the only one I had done with what I said I had done with other girls: something that left my back bark-scratched and fingernail-clawed and my shoulders bite-marked, something we did with lightning bugs drifting between us so we saw one another’s faces, heard one another breathe, her saying, “Jesus,” over and over until her mama came out of her house.
But no one ever talked about how I made Azzilee bleed doing with her what I said I had done with other girls.
In the daylight of the next day her mama let me see her not in class, I read my crooked initials above her straight initials.
“It’s okay,” she said. “I’ll know what it says.”
She said, “How long will it stay there?”
“A long time,” I said. “This tree’s not going anywhere.”
She said she had wanted to be married under that tree since she was a little girl. I said we would talk about it the next day.
According to my Geography textbook, California has Redwood trees with holes cut out of the trunks so you can drive through them.
I was not quite as old as the planted-pines growing on both sides of the roads, and I didn’t drive through one of them so much as up it. It bent, but didn’t break. It was a tough little bastard.
I sat in my truck on that tree and watched with my head hanging out the window the light of the moon glinting on my rims, tires spinning free. If the tires had been on the road still, I could have been far away from that place—maybe even California. But wherever I would have gone, I would have still been drunk.
This is something I thought of when I was drinking.
Lance and me hauled leftover sawmill wood in my truck. We nailed it together for a cross for the church play. Lance’s daddy was a sawmill man, and Jesus was just a carpenter. At least that’s what I learned from the preacher, from what he had learned from his Bible.
I don’t know if Azzilee’s mama’s Bible says anything different. The only thing in it I could read was Jesus’ name, but it said “Jesús” and not “Jesus.”
Azzilee could read it all. She learned that the earth is only seven-thousand-years-old, and that the oldest tree was as old as the earth.
But no one has ever seen that tree, so I don’t know how she was so certain.
Azzilee would not shut up about Jesus for the rest of our last year of school.
I played Jesus that year in the church play, so I knew all about Him: how it feels to be up on a rough wooden cross with splinters digging into your naked back, half-naked in front of everyone looking at you like you’ve done something worse than anything they have.
The preacher said no one broke His legs, so He didn’t have to push up on busted bones just to breathe while He was dying. But the preacher never said He voided Himself after He died. He was supposed to be all man and all God, so I don’t know. No one talked about that. At least no one did when I did.
You couldn’t pay me to be Jesus again.
Lance told me about the night he gave me the tattoo I bled out most of the ink from, blood mostly what I’d learned to put in my jar. There was a stain on his carpet when I went back to pay him. He said I sat on his couch, talking and talking about getting a cross dug into my skin. But this doesn’t sound like anything I would say.
I’m glad he talked me out of what I wanted and what I got, what I said I wanted after the cross.
What I got made sure I would never have to be Jesus again.
No one broke Jesus’ legs, but someone made Him bleed.
The preacher said other preachers had written in mama’s Bible about Jesus’ dying. Those preachers were supposed to have known Jesus, but just one of them said someone made Him bleed.
This preacher said Jesus’ mama was there when He died, and all of them said there were a lot of other women there. But this preacher was the friend of a preacher who went to jail, and got his head chopped off.
I was Jesus just once, but everyone called me Jesus: little old ladies, schoolboys, the daddies of girls I stole beer for in high-school and laid down with in my truck to not do with them what I said I did. For years, I couldn’t cross a parking lot without hearing, “Hey, Jesus,” or “Jesús.” I cut my hair and shaved my face, but they didn’t stop.
When someone walked behind my truck in the grocery store parking lot, mouthing this name through my rolled-up windows, I imagined backing over them and hearing their bones snap under my tires.
But coming out of the liquor store with a case, no one called me this. When I saw some of those same men and women coming in when I came out, they didn’t say it.
They didn’t like to say it there.
Jesus is everywhere, but I don’t know where.
He doesn’t hang on crosses in the yards of churches whose names I’m learning to say. When I pull into places for a drink, I sometimes hear someone say, “Jesús.” But it’s not me they are talking to, just someone else who has pulled in for a drink or a piss.
In the bathrooms of these places, pissing what is sometimes yellow and what is sometimes pink into toilets clogged with paper-towels, I see His name carved into the walls, or just His cross in heavy black ink above holes dug through partitions.
Sitting on stools in these places with my hair as long as it is and with my beard as thick as it is and hearing talk I cannot understand, I wait for someone to call me Jesus, or at least Jesús.
Next to Lance on his couch, I pulled sweaty wadded money out of my pocket.
He said, “Just let me see it.”
I took off my shirt.
My rib-skin was swollen and red around broken lines of letters.
“Scarred up like a motherfucker,” he said.
I said, “It’s not supposed to?”
“It happens sometimes. Just rub some peroxide on it.”
I put the money in my pocket, eased down my shirt.
Lance said something, but I don’t remember what he said. I remember watching the stain in his carpet, waiting to see Jesus’ mama’s face in it like Azzilee said she sometimes saw it in church.
“Why would you get your own initials tattooed on you?” Lance said.
“Why would you get a cross tattooed on you? My name’s not going to change.”
“Hell, I thought you knew your own name by now.”
I don’t know why I got what I got, or why he let me get it. But I said, “Maybe it’s not for me. Maybe it’ll help someone identify my body one day.”
I kept watching the stain, but it was just my blood.
I’ve not yet read all of Azzilee’s mama’s Bible. Somewhere in the words I can’t read, one of the preachers must have said something about someone stabbing Jesus with a spear.
Maybe somewhere in her Bible, Jesus—after He came back—wrote everything down just the way it happened, so that all the letters would be red like the ones in mama’s Bible when preachers say Jesus was supposed to say something. If it’s not there, maybe it was lost when someone turned the words Azzilee and her mama understood into words I understand.
This is another thing I think of while driving past signs that will light up about the same time signs go dark next to crosses where Jesus doesn’t hang.
Azzilee, Lance’s daddy, and the preacher all said Jesus was thirty-three years old when He did His dying. I’m almost His age, but I feel the same as I have since what happened happened.
If I died here, knowing what I would come back to, I wouldn’t come back.
I don’t know what my headstone will say.
Maybe some of the men and women I have sat next to on barstools will show up, maybe the bartenders themselves. I haven’t yet been in any of these churches, so I don’t know what the preacher will say if someone buries me here.
Azzilee’s daddy was no preacher, but he prayed all the time. Mostly, he prayed in the graveyard down the road from their house. Azzilee said he said it was always quiet enough to hear Jesus and His mama answer him through the planted-pines all around the graveyard.
She said he read her name on a headstone there before she was born, and he liked it. He said it sounded more like a name for someone who lived there than any of the names daddies gave their daughters where him and Azzilee’s mama grew up.
I drove her to that graveyard. The headstone was streaked black from rain. The date on one side was the same as the date on the other side. We ran our fingers over them, but we couldn’t tell the letters from the stone.
I wasn’t there when they buried her next to her daddy behind the church mama and me didn’t go to. She wasn’t there the night I hung on the cross and felt the bent-down nails in my back that Lance and me couldn’t drive in straight or pull out with his daddy’s hammer-claw.
I like to hear women’s names in the places I stop into.
I like to say their names while driving, even if I can no longer make the names fit with their faces or the smoke-smell of their hair so black it was sometimes blue in the light of their houses before they turned the lights out.
It’s not her name or her face, but her back I remember. I don’t remember driving her, but my truck was in her yard the next day, crushing a little garden of flowers tough enough to grow here.
Turned away from me in her bed that morning, I saw Jesus’ face in her back. He watched a curling strand of her hair that was only black in that light, stuck in my gray-streaked beard. All those black lines were faded in her skin even browner than Azzilee’s; faded so much that I couldn’t tell what it was that twisted into His hair and made black blood run down His face.
I left her sleeping.
Tonight, I pull into the parking lot of a church after the sign goes dark. I’ve not prayed since what happened happened, but I say over and over the name no one calls me anymore.
No one answers.
I wasn’t there when what happened happened, but Lance said his girlfriend said the coroner told Lance’s girlfriend’s mama—in what was supposed to be his professional opinion—that if Azzilee had jumped off the limb with the rope around her neck like everyone thought, it would have broken her neck.
But her neck, he said, was not broken.
He thought she eased herself off the limb and held onto the rope until she let go. He called it “asphyxiation,” which makes sense, since everyone said all the veins in her eyes were busted and her face was blue.
No one should have talked about that, at least not around me. No one said she had or had not voided herself. No one likes to talk about that.
Lance’s girlfriend didn’t say her mama said the coroner said anything about what was in Azzilee’s belly. But he must have known, being a professional.
I’m glad no one talks about that.
Lance’s girlfriend, who everyone just knew I did something with in my truck in high-school, said Azzilee’s mama no longer went to the church where no one else went to pray to Jesus’ mama. She didn’t know where Azzilee’s mama now went to church, or where she lived.
Where she went to church didn’t matter.
What mattered was the tree in the yard of the house where Azzilee’s mama didn’t live anymore, and how Lance said his daddy’s buddy said loggers would cut the tree and all the planted-pines around the house.
What mattered more than this was how the loggers would grind up the tree. They preferred planted-pines, as Lance’s daddy’s sawmill was not built like the sawmills a hundred years ago that cut up million-year-old trees for desks and bathroom doors.
Lance’s daddy’s buddy, who had already inspected “the grounds” in what I took to be a professional way, said the tree should be cut anyway, since the bugs living in it were killing it.
What neither Lance’s girlfriend nor Lance’s daddy’s buddy knew was that the skin around my initials was red and too-tender and itched like a bastard, and that I could not get halfway through a case without being blind-drunk.
There is something I know that I never read in a textbook.
Trees of a certain size, like the one on “the grounds” around Azzilee’s mama’s house, sometimes grow too tall, especially when their limbs reach too far in two directions for too long.
The tree had split. Both limbs touched grass. I could smell the meat of the tree where it split, white like it had never seen the sun. You could have walked up a limb with no help at all.
I didn’t walk up either one.
I dug deeper the grooved letters I had made with my Case. I pressed and twisted my palms against the bark to crush bugs that flew from the white-meated middle and lit on the trunk.
When it grew dark and I was sweaty and thirsty, I walked back to my truck, took off my shirt, and turned on my headlights. I brought back beer and drank one bottle after another until I was thirsty again. When I had drank all the bottles in the case, I stood back and wiped what had been bugs onto my jeans and drug my fingers through the ruts in the bark that were not letters in my high-beams.
Bowed over the steering wheel in the ditch of the road that had turned into the road it was from one road turning into another, I took out my Case. With the bark and gristle of the tree’s meat still on it, I turned the blade edge-wise and scraped my skin.
Waking the next day from sleep I don’t remember, I learned there are two things I’m good at.
In the Geography class I let myself fail to sit next to Azzilee, she learned that if you crossed the border into Mexico, you would find mostly desert and scrub-brush. Having learned this the year before, I considered myself an expert on this country’s terrain.
Before the coroner knew, but not before she knew or I knew what was in her belly, Azzilee said, “Why do you want to leave? How could you live somewhere with no trees?”
I don’t remember what I said. I didn’t know the answer then, but I said something.
I don’t know why I have so much trouble pissing. Maybe it’s from all the blood I let out of myself scraping away my name, or from all the things I’ve drank, or from all the women whose names I don’t remember—women I stumbled next to coming out of places with neon-lighted names I still can’t say. I don’t think it has anything to do with letting my hair grow or not shaving. But I’m no doctor.
Something I know for sure is that there is mostly desert and scrub-brush here, no Redwoods or planted-pines. If you run off the road, you just keep going. The worst that can happen is you flip. Then, maybe having broken no bones, someone finds you in your truck among scrub-brush and eases you out, thinking he has found Jesus.