Grandma Ghee died in the summer, and a week later Tara drove that Buick across the High Plains, through the Continental Divide, just under a thousand miles, until she saw the sea. And then she parked it. Took out her bag and chemistry books and didn’t touch the car for a year.
From the high window of her brick dormitory, Tara would watch her grandmother’s car, suspended in the corner of that black asphalt lake. Shy underneath a streetlamp.
Then it’s the last morning of the spring term, and the first sun she has seen in weeks. Tara approaches the Buick from its side like she would a skittish creature. She stands, her hand on the warm metal of the hatch, trying to form an apology.
“Hey,” she says, turning her single key. “Did you forget about me?”
The trunk pops and releases. Somewhere between Montana and here the rubber hoop sealing the trunk came loose, or disintegrated, and the cavity filled with months of late afternoon rain. A shallow, muddied pond formed, with bits of red carpet floating on its surface and colonies of mold climbing its banks. A wasp’s nest, too, in the driver’s side door. The original architects had long since abandoned their papery scaffold, but Tara skirts it anyway to reach the ignition. The Buick gasps but its engine does not turn over. Under her abdication, the cold, mossy landscape had begun to claim the car as its own. She glances around, feels as if the damp is shrugging at her: what did you expect, it asks, you should have come sooner, you should wear your keys like a badge, where’s your allegiance, what happened to your pride?
When the mechanic arrives the sun has faded. He steps down from his truck. He turns in circles, in awe of the old academic buildings, fortified and shining against the encroaching moisture.
“I’ve lived in this town for over twenty years,” he hiccups, “and never been here before.”
He walks once around the car before disappearing into its metal belly. “What’re you doing here?” comes his muffled voice.
“Not much on the day-to-day,” Tara says, and then changes her mind. “I mean, I study. It’s my first year. I study chemistry here.” Tara feels pleased with her answer—its aloofness, its refusal to stake a claim to this place.
“You’re not from around here, are you?” he asks. “I saw your license plate.”
Tara shakes her head.
“Uh huh, Montana! No kidding. Montana is what America used to be.” He clears his throat and Tara hears spit land somewhere deep in the interstices of the Buick’s pipes.
“I’d like to hear what you’re picturing, exactly.”
The mechanic jerks out from underneath the hood, meeting Tara’s eyes. He looks suspicious.
“You need to drive this thing,” he warns. “Or run it, at least, a half hour here and there.” He closes the hood and looks over the Buick once more. He whistles slowly. “Someone loved this car very much before you,” he says.
“I love this car very much,” Tara answers, but the words break off halfway to her mouth.
In a late, red October, around the time Tara turned seven, Grandma Ghee moved them all out of the county seat to Brady. As they drove into town, the last grain silo standing caught on fire. The volunteer fire department quickly dampened the flames, but the grain smoldered for an entire week, a question mark of smoke drifting out of the charred metal above the landscape.
Grandma Ghee purchased a sprawling, rusted estate. One of the old ranchers had given her the deed. That first evening, the two stood on the sagging back porch and gazed out at the fields of dead winter wheat.
“Where does my land end, exactly?” Grandma Ghee asked, creasing the deed with her thick fingers.
The leathery man shook his head. “You could use twice as much as you can see and still not bother no one, none,” he said.
So Grandma Ghee marked Tara’s boundary as the last corroded truck bumper, which rested several hundred yards from the main house, just before the stalks of the fruitless field became taller, thicker. Tara didn’t mind. Within the razed dirt yard there lay large, cavernous woodpiles and a tangled playground of old farm equipment and car appendages. A gutted ’76 pickup squatted in the side yard, and Tara played hopscotch between old tires. Tara thought the real prize, though, was the unstained wooden barn behind the house. It had a loft filled with sawdust and still smelled warm and ripe like animals.
The boys didn’t have boundaries. They roved the property late into the night, howling and sweating. No coyotes close, only “brothers.” Grandma Ghee’s brood, in true Montana style, was half blood and half something else: they were Tara’s friends, cousins, an old schoolmate whose parents disappeared, maybe because of amphetamines, maybe not. They always rose early, darted through the kitchen, past Grandma Ghee, to grab cold cuts of turkey from the fridge and knives from the butcher’s block. Then they tumbled, whining, snarling, out the backdoor and into the dirt and sunshine. Grandma Ghee spent her mornings swaying in the kitchen with a cigarette between her lips, her arms bent stiffly in front of her, resting on an absent lover. Tara watched her from the cool kitchen tiles.
The house felt empty during the day, almost skeletal, but there were no extra beds come nightfall. Tara slept beside Grandma Ghee every night, the weight of her body bowing the mattress and drawing Tara in, its own gravitational field. On the nights when Tara came into the room after Grandma Ghee had begun to snore, she moved delicately. She brushed each foot clean of dirt and cigarette ash and slipped, toe by toe, into the damp sheets. She breathed shallow. When Grandma Ghee stirred, as she always did, she reached out to find Tara, pulled her to her chest, and her sweat pooled to create a slick coat between them. Tara, a thin stick in her grandmother’s arms.
When Tara awoke she smelled of Grandma Ghee—of smoke, old bedding, and hair oil. When she awoke, alone, she looked at the depression in the mattress with a mix of love and shame.
It was the end of a grueling summer—less than three inches of precipitation in three months. Tara awoke for her first day of fifth grade to find Grandma Ghee’s white Buick missing from its spot. Tara stepped barefoot onto the back porch. The morning wind blew thick streams of dust that itched her nose, that settled in a dark ring above the collar of her nightshirt. She squinted. She wound her way through the yard’s morass of metal parts and chicken wire, resisting the urge to shimmy through the old tractor wheel. She wasn’t supposed to play on school days. She wondered what to do with herself, or whether she could cook herself breakfast. She closed her eyes and tried to picture the route of the two-lane country highway that led to the elementary school in Dutton. The wind beat steadily across the High Plains.
Tara squatted in the dirt near the ’76 pickup to watch the gopher holes. Every few minutes, a fat, tan head would emerge from its burrow to chirp, setting off a symphony from gopher holes both near and far in the surrounding fields of winter wheat. Tara could mimic a gopher’s chirp better than anyone. She could bugle like an elk, too. When the wind shifted direction, she heard a new sound, though. She followed her brothers’ laughter into the cool stillness of the barn. From the ground floor, she saw several figures hunched in the loft. Their shifting feet sifted sawdust through the gaps in the floorboards, and Tara gazed upwards, a fine, ticklish sprinkle on her face. Like snow. As soon as she began climbing the worn ladder rungs to the loft, the laughter stopped.
“Who’s it?” said one of her brothers.
Tara wriggled her narrow chest over the loft’s lip.
“Why aren’t you in school, girl?” Another brother kicked a molehill of sawdust towards her.
Tara’s eyes adjusted slowly to the low light of the room. Her brothers sat along the slanted walls, and their friends, too, looking at each other or at the floor.
“You oughta be in school,” said her youngest brother, hard, quiet. “You shouldn’t be here.”
One of her brothers lit a cigarette, one of Grandma Ghee’s. He held it in his lips, like she did, his hands somewhere dark Tara couldn’t see. Her body began to shudder, and she couldn’t explain, then, about Grandma Ghee’s car, about the two-lane highway turning around in her mind. Right, then left. Left, then left. About Grandma Ghee’s car. About cooking breakfast.
She shook her head and a tan rope of hands pulled her into the loft, farther into the loft, into the thickest shadow. The laughter resumed, her brothers’ friends—her brothers?—her brothers’ friends touched the back of her neck, tugged their pants down their hips.
Later, after, she sprinted towards the house, and her bare heels hit the dirt so fast it felt like concrete. She imagined her brothers running behind her, but they were all younger, all her age, their eyes boyish and eager. They were running together, she in front, colorful strips of cloth tied around each of their foreheads, whooping. It was a movie scene, behind her eyes, and she saw her brothers clearly, spit foaming from dumb joy, their cheeks ruddy, hollering: who’s the fastest, who’s the fastest?
She was. She was just a flash of taut limbs, bone grinding on bone, but so fast. She was laughing and laughing, and there were tears in her eyes and the yard was blurry and boundless as she blinked away that warm water. The scene stopped as she collided with Grandma Ghee’s soft stomach. Grandma Ghee sucked her teeth and held Tara, rocked back and forth, moaned, “Girl, girl, girl.” Her voice croaked.
From the corner of her eye, Tara saw Grandma Ghee’s Buick parked safely back in its spot. Something new beat in Tara’s chest and Grandma Ghee cradled her under that cold sun.
She didn’t play with her brothers much after that. Instead, she slept. Instead, she unrolled dozens of feet of chicken wire and staked it in a crude circle around her favorite part of the yard: the hopscotch tires and the old tractor wheel. The gopher holes were outside the chicken wire, and she mourned them, briefly, as she wiped the rust from her hands. She collected oranging leaves from the bushes surrounding the house and beds of evergreen needles to make salads. She made four salads. She hosted a luncheon.
She ate cigarette butts for the better part of a year before someone caught her. She would palm them from Grandma Ghee’s brass ashtrays, from the boards of the back porch, from beneath her brothers’ bedroom windows. The less tobacco left, the better. She chewed the cigarette butts into a fleshy, tan pulp, and then formed a compact ball using her tongue. After a few minutes of chewing, dark gray spit would gather at the corners of her mouth. The morning one of her brothers discovered her, her heart broke softly.
He, the oldest. He called the other brothers and their friends, “Come look at this,” and they all stumbled onto the back porch, baying with laughter. They made gagging noises and fell all over one another, held their stomachs, pretended to throw up. Some shuddered violently, and tongues lolled out of their mouths, while others reached down and pronounced them dead.
“You’re crazy, girl.”
One of her brother’s friends leaned in and wiped ash from her chin with a calloused thumb.
Grandma Ghee thrust her heavy bosom out the kitchen window, yelled, “Shoo! All you, shoo!” She walked around to the back porch and crouched beside Tara, brushing the dry cigarette butts back into the dirt. She held out her hand and Tara ejected the mound into Grandma Ghee’s cracked palm. “Nuh uh, don’t listen to them,” Grandma Ghee cooed. “You’re the quick one, girl. You’re gonna go to college, just like I did. You’re the quick one, gonna be something greater.”
Tara lets the engine run that night, like the mechanic suggested, and pores over her chemistry workbook under the Buick’s striated ceiling lights. Outside the driver’s window, Tara sees silhouettes of students in rubber hoods slip back into their dormitories, together shaking off their wetness, opening heavy wooden doors with relief. The dormitories will soon empty for the summer, students trickling home, to their brave states or elsewhere. She thinks of the last time she saw Montana, with its westernmost fields still and indifferent in the August heat. Fading to yellow from her brothers’ coughs and spit.
Tara switches the overhead lights off and stacks her chemistry books on the floor. The car that brought her here hums along in the cicada dark. She lifts her skirt above her hips and spreads her legs wide across the faux velvet bench seat. She brings two fingers to her mouth and draws them in, reaches across her body with her other hand and holds her ribcage, the strongest part of her. She rocks back and forth in that red plush and sweat, feeling like she is in utero.
She emerges, slimy and exhausted. A sheet of warm moisture has formed over the driver’s window, and as she now looks out, she sees no dormitory, no students, no asphalt, just her own heat and sex reflected back to her.
Tara lays her cheek flush to the passenger seat, inhaling the flat smell of cigarette smoke that had long seeped into the fabric. She lies there, quiet, her hands touching one another. The thuds in Tara’s chest slow, matching the plastic arms scraping rain back and forth across the windshield.