Books

Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

Bear Me Safely Over

by Sheri Joseph

“A gutsy, realistic and lyrical portrait of country people struggling to find meaning in their constricted lives. . . . An affecting narrative that explores the way people accept or reject the responsibilities of nurturing and love.” –Publishers Weekly

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 272
  • Publication Date April 22, 2003
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-3984-9
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $13.00

About The Book

“[Joseph] embeds the pleasure of a romance novel within this very literary effort. An old-fashioned family drama made . . . relatively new by the complicating factors of stepfamily, gay liberation and rock ‘n’ roll.” –The New York Times Book Review

Atmospheric and engaging, Sheri Joseph’s remarkably assured debut explores the interior lives of two Georgia families soon to be linked by a marriage.  Though Bear Me Safely Over tackles dark themes–the menace of homophobia, the splintering of families, the discordant voice of religious fundamentalism–it is at its core a hopeful portrait of the different and often elusive faces of salvation. Sidra and Curtis, two twenty-somethings who impulsively decide to make their relationship permanent, form an arch that connects their fractured families. Sidra has already lost a sister to the fatal allure of drugs, and now Curtis’s young gay stepbrother, Paul, a lonely and defiant outsider, seems to be drifting out of control. By the book’s exquisite conclusion, no character is left untouched by the challenge of having to choose between guiding and thwarting troubled souls in their precarious passage to firmer ground. Bear Me Safely Over offers up a kaleidoscopic vision of the common secrets and sorrows at the heart of a community.

Praise

“Many writers are busy exploring similar territory, but Joseph claims her own corner with quiet empathy.” –Ann Powers, New York Times Book Review

“One of our favorite books. . . . Joseph’s compassion for all her characters . . . is impressive.” –John Grooms, Dana Renaldi, Creative Loafing

“In her debut novel, Joseph weaves a tale of families and friends who are struggling to accept each other’s choices.” –Hal Jacobs, Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Joseph’s prose is never boring. It’s a treat to be privy to the intimate thoughts of her colorful characters. . . . Joseph is a writer with descriptive prowess–she can sweep the lens from the lush and timeless expanse of rural Georgia to the smoky nightclubs of the Athens music scene, to the backseat desire of a gay boy’s secret world and the dingy highway rest stops of society’s weary and wandering marginalia.” –Melissa Ludwig, Austin American-Statesman

“[Bear Me Safely Over has] moments so delicately rendered they leave your eyes shining damp: people who soldier on in the face of the inevitable with a graceful decency, people who suffer and yet never curse the day.” –Cheryl Truman, Lexington Herald

“Joseph has written a fine story . . . Bear Me Safely Over is a moving tale about the lives of families, fears, and resolutions.” –Jennifer Osborne, Morning Star-Telegram

“[An] engrossing debut novel. . . . By fashioning most of the book into self-contained chapters. . . she draws on her superb short-story skills.” –David Bahr, LA Advocate

“The best part of Joseph’s story-telling skill lies in her ability to preserve the uniqueness and humanity of her characters. . . . She is adept at inhabiting the minds of her many different characters. . . . A grown-up, modern version of the old-fashioned southern melodrama.” –Echo

“At its core [it] is a hopeful portrait of the different and often elusive faces of salvation.” –Gay Life

Bear Me Safely Over offers the reader a kaleidoscopic vision of the secrets and sorrows at the heart of a community that will have readers looking at all relationships with new eyes.” –Sewanee Magazine

“Joseph is a distinctive voice: fearless, critical and yet ultimately full of hope . . . she has the potential to join the front ranks of Southern writers.” –Lexington Herald-Leader

“Joseph is not afraid to make demands of herself or her readers. . . . The best way to describe her multivocal and nonchronological narrative is to compare it to a patchwork quilt, with each chapter corresponding to an individual square.” –Andrew Beierle, Lambda Book Report 

“A gutsy, realistic, and lyrical portrait of country people struggling to find meaning in their constricted lives . . . An affecting narrative that explores the way people accept or reject the responsibilities of nurturing and love.” –Publishers Weekly

“Joseph explores the psychology of her characters with a deft hand.” –Booklist

“A wonderful debut novel that portrays emotions as they exist in the real world. I especially liked how the sisters and the two families resolve their many differences.” –Tina Kruger, Von’s Books, West Lafayette, IN, Book Sense quote

Awards

A Book Sense 76 Selection

Excerpt

hindsight

Sidra wore her hair up, twisted in the jaws of a fierce toothed clip. Curtis, wedging a pocket with his nose, found it still damp on the inside, fragrant with her apple shampoo. Though she’d been mucking stalls for an hour, heaping horseshit into a wheelbarrow, the sweat along her earlobe tasted as clean as her hair–apples and salt–maybe saved by the clip from the smell of horses. Curtis didn’t know whether to be thankful, since he loved the look of her hair loose. Without it long and shining over her shoulders, she seemed to be missing something, to be only partly there.

“You’re in a mood,” she said. He backed her into a corner of the stall, hands pushing under her shirt where she was slicked with sweat.

“I missed you last night, is all.” His hands traveled over her backside, the tight-muscled ass of a rider, and upward over the knobs of her hipbones, the soft-skinned rails of her ribs. So thin, this girl–bony as Faggot-boy.

His stomach lurched at the thought, touched the back of his throat with the taste of last night’s beer. Now why, with his hands on Sidra, would he go and think up a comparison like that, his fairy of a teenage stepbrother? It was definitely time to break up with her. He rummaged for her breasts, but she was wearing an exercise bra that made her flatter than usual. She might as well have taped herself down with an Ace bandage.

She grabbed his hands through the shirt. “Curtis, you know Mama could walk in here any minute.”

Curtis was pretty sure that Sidra’s mother could catch them buck naked and not say anything more than “Excuse me.” But Sidra liked her dramas arranged her way. His fingers laced into her ribs, burrowed against her skin; he had to force himself to turn her loose, to step back, palms out. “Now, Sid, that is exactly the kind of shit I’m talking about.”

She lolled her head. “Poor baby. If you’re not getting enough, why don’t you just pick up one of those girls that hang around Slocum’s?”

Maybe I will, he wanted to say, but she had beaten him again. He had been thinking of that very thing just the night before. Girls followed the band he played with, leaned at him across tables with breasts mounding out the scoop necks of their tiny T-shirts. There was real action, offered, his for the taking. But she emptied the threat straight out by speaking it like that, as if it were her smallest concern. How in the hell was he supposed to break up with a woman who would say such things?

He had intended not to miss her the night before, not to think of her, though he dimly recalled driving away from Slocum’s in some dark hour of the morning, and then, jump-cut, he was staggering drunk up her mother’s driveway. Had it really been him, or a dream, that moony puppy outside Sidra’s bedroom window?

“I’m just saying–” It was too late, now, to keep the whine out of his voice. “Why’d you have to move home anyway? If you were at all thinkin” about me–”

“We’ve been over this, Curtis. If my horses are here, I gotta be here. And Mama needs me with her.”

He snorted–the biggest crock he’d ever heard, and she knew it. That Florie Ballard would need anyone. Sidra was home purely to piss her mother off. And maybe to piss him off in the bargain. He had thought of that before when he tried to imagine what went on in her head. But it wasn’t logical. She fell into pieces whenever he tried to tell himself this or that was the true Sidra, the reason and the answer.

“Baby, it’s not like you don’t have a place. And a car.” She grinned, stroking his belly, and he tensed the muscles against her touch. “What’s your problem, anyway?”

***

All the way out to the back field, alone, he listed her pros and cons. They were going to go riding. Sidra’s own horses were an oddball collection of half-broke babies, too spooky for strangers. But in the various weedy, barbed-wire fields and leaning sheds where she had managed to board her horses in the past, there had always been someone else’s horse he could ride. Now that she was back home, he had several to choose from. “You can take my old show horse,” she had said. “Name’s Simon. He’s out in the back with Mama’s mares, seal brown, you can’t miss him.” She had put a halter in his hand then, and pointed.

He did enjoy having a horsy girlfriend. He liked to ride. It was something he felt he could do with a reasonable appearance of skill. Sidra called him a natural cowboy. He liked to see himself that way, straight in the saddle–even if it was an English saddle–halfway to Marlboro man. Horses looked tricky, but they were easy once you knew what buttons to push.

So the horses were one of her pros. But making him trudge half a mile all by himself to catch one was pure Sidra. A girlfriend ought to think ahead about catching a horse, say, so it would be waiting at the barn. Or she might even want to walk out with him, spend a little time. But horses, he suspected, were all that Sidra truly needed. Her own were cozy in the barn and she was with them, and that was that. He ranked second and was on his own.

The sex was good; another pro. He was addicted to her skin and all the angles of her body, the secret spots he understood the workings of. He knew where to kiss her–inside the elbow, back of the neck–to make her toes curl. Something in that reaction, such a little thing, made him happy in a way he couldn’t account for. He knew where there were dimples in her lower back that even she had never seen. More than anything, he loved the look and feel of all that blond hair against his thighs when she went down on him. Even though now it seemed they were beginning to fall into routines, the newness worn off of everything between them, he couldn’t tell himself he was tired of her. Not in bed, maybe never. When he broke up with her, he thought, she would still belong to him. And when she was with someone else–he tried to picture it and struck a closed door. Not Sidra with anyone else.

But it was time to move on. He could see that look in the eyes of the band when they asked, full knowing the answer, “Now, how long have you two been together?” It was going on two years, incredibly; he had never meant it to last so long. They somehow just kept going. It was like his job at Athens Walls and Windows, where he had been since college graduation: nothing impressive, but it paid the bills, and he could think of worse places to be stuck. He knew what to do with paint and wallpaper and Venetian blinds. The work was reliable.

He came to a fence, found the gate. The horses were grazing at the back of the weedy field along a stand of scrub trees and brush. On the rise beyond the fence was a bizarre landscape–a whole neighborhood of fresh new two-story houses. No lawns yet, only scrubbed red dirt. The few that faced him had the dollhouse look of wide factory-new windows looking in on nothing but another window at the back, the view unobstructed straight through. They made him feel vaguely watched, though no one lived there yet. It was Sunday, no workers around. He and Sidra could ride the horses over there and explore.

He counted four horses in the field and picked out the one that looked most like a seal–Sidra’s former show horse, now a retired old nag. One day, he thought, maybe I’ll be good enough to ride one of her precious babies. He pictured Sidra’s shock if he were to lope her black stud colt in circles around her, bareback, the horse full of fire but not bucking, halting at his command. “No big deal,” he would say. “We understand each other.” But something like that would take time–he and Sidra could be broken up tomorrow, for all he knew.

The dark horse grazed a little apart from the others. Curtis felt in his pockets for a carrot, but he had forgotten one. He held out his hand, faking carrot. The mares down the field raised their heads, looked at him with interest. The gelding, sweet-faced, stood still and stretched out its nose toward Curtis’s hand. “Whoa there,” he said, looping the lead shank around the horse’s neck.

With the other hand, he straightened the halter to go over the gelding’s head. He was thinking, for some reason, of Sidra’s hands on the halter, on the head of this horse that she had ridden for so many years. How many years? He looked at the eyes of the horse as if it could answer, and he saw that something was wrong. The gelding raised its head, took a step backward. Something in the eyes was no longer what he thought it had been, sweet old pet after a carrot and a good scratch. “Whoa–” Curtis tightened his grip on the rope. The muscles of the animal’s neck flared suddenly against the restraint, and Curtis knew then he was no match, but he set his heels, gripped down. “Whoa, you bastard.”

The horse sat back on its haunches, spun away into a bolt, and not thinking to let go, Curtis felt his body jerked around like a doll, then a sudden shock of impact in the center of his back. He hit the ground on his knees, the horse long gone, and he knew he had seen the rear hooves airborne in his peripheral vision. The bastard mule had kicked him!

The blow had slammed all the air from his lungs. He went to his hands, sucking for air. When he looked up again, the three other horses were directly above with their muzzles in his face, ears pricked. “Jesus!” He scrambled away, thinking they could trample him in an instant. With loud snorts, they shied back, but at once they were calm again, ears pointed like raised eyebrows, as if he were the most interesting creature ever to appear in their field. One mare glanced at her companion and back at him, so that he had to wonder what the old ladies were saying. ‘mildred, what do you make of this?” Or perhaps, “Whaddya know, ole Simon got one right in the back! Will you look at that!” On the ground, so vulnerable, he knew they must be capable of thinking such things, as if he had stumbled into the frequency for their thoughts. The culprit stood cropping grass, unconcerned, several yards off.

***

When he’d first laid eyes on Sidra, it had been from behind–long blond hair and her beautiful ass rounding under a miniskirt. That night, from the stage, she’d been the best-looking thing at Slocum’s. Even Kim Fisher–who ran their lights and sometimes, if drunk, went home with him, to the head-shaking envy of the other band members–turned forgettable. He tracked Sidra’s movements in the crowd by the flash of colored lights off her pale hair, and Kim seemed to spin the colors wilder and wilder until Curtis thought he was falling, forgot his place in the song.

But her face proved a sore disappointment. He couldn’t decide–still couldn’t–if her nose was too long, her lips too thin, her eyes too small, too strange, if it was the mole on her chin, the reddish crescents beside her nose, or the mere fact that she wouldn’t wear makeup. All those things and more contributed to a face that was not unattractive, at times strangely attractive, at times just plain strange. He didn’t dare think ugly. Not after the way she drew him to her as if she were the only true female thing he had ever run across.

Oddly, when he faced her, when she spoke, she hardly seemed like a girl at all–at least not like the girls he was used to. She had none of their aloofness. Her games were all her own. She thumb-wrestled him for drinks, and won; he couldn’t be sure that he had let her. She taught him a curse word he had never heard before–chordee–straight from the Middle Ages and dirtier than anything he knew. She downed tequila shots in a single deft motion: lick of salt, roll of the hand over the glass and done, glass clunked on the table. Nothing dainty about it. Those reckless movements, the narrow, laughing eyes. He knew he would have to see her again, if only to talk himself out of her.

Before she left Slocum’s that night, she had taken hold of his wrist, unbuttoned the flannel sleeve, and rolled it slowly, painstakingly, back to the elbow; then, in black ballpoint pen, she’d written SIDRA and her phone number over the blank expanse of his forearm. For days after the ink faded, he felt the bite where the pen tip had furrowed his flesh, as if she had meant to leave a permanent mark.

***

Horseless, Curtis walked back from the pasture. He couldn’t risk another failed attempt at Simon, and besides, he no longer felt like riding. Sidra, he knew, had somehow planned this fate for him, this humiliation–she was a conspirator, after all, with horses. She was probably laughing already. This was the end of them. The horse’s hoof was like a proclamation of God and a stamp slammed out of heaven to seal Curtis’s decision. Even he couldn’t argue with a thing like that. He tried to light on the right words to say to her, so that she would know how deeply she had injured him, the degree of her blame. “Your goddamn horse,” he mumbled, but already it sounded childish, petty. He revised. “Good-bye, Sidra. Don’t call me.”

The trail from the field led up beside the house before descending to the barn. The house, blue clapboard, was half shaded by a massive, gnarled oak and set about with roof-high sprays of hot-pink flower bushes. The back porch was a deep one, dark and cool and inviting, studded with white wicker rockers. In one of these sat Florie Ballard, Sidra’s mother. Curtis shouldn’t have looked over, but he did, and she waved. Then her terriers were suddenly colliding under his feet in a white-and-brown-spotted fury.

“Here! Gertie! Zeus!” The dogs rolled off, paying him little mind but snapping at each other, spinning circles around him. He could see Florie’s solid form in her wide-brimmed hat at the wall of the porch, insistently waving him up. He had no choice. Sidra, brushing Gumby, her spotted four-year-old, was darkly visible down in the barn hall.

“Look at this good-looking young man! How’s the music business?” Florie held out her hands, downturned. Though not especially tall or fat, she always struck Curtis as being twice the size of her daughter. Without softness, she carried an ease of flesh that seemed definite, somehow intentional.

“Can’t complain, Florie.” He smiled, gave her his hands to squeeze. She made him forget all his anger in an instant, even the swelling ache of his back. The porch seemed like neutral ground, a place where he could put everything on hold for as long as he felt inclined. He did like talking to Florie.

“You been working on any new songs?”

“A few. One I like a little.”

“Well, you bring that guitar over and premiere them for us. We want to be the first to hear them, so later on we’ll have that claim to fame.” By “we” she meant Sidra and herself and her elderly mother-in-law, who was mostly deaf. Curtis played bass for his band, Fried Baloney, shy of the spotlight that followed singers and guitars. When he brought out his old guitar, played his own songs, it was almost always locked in his room alone and singing half in whispers. Only once had he played aloud and for an audience, one night on Florie Ballard’s back porch.

‘sidra won’t mind if I make you sit awhile,” she said, with a wink that meant she cared little what her daughter minded. “I haven’t seen you in so long. Now that she’s moved home, though, I expect we’ll see more of you.” Florie sat in her accustomed place, and the dogs fell panting at her feet. Sidra’s mother–he couldn’t help adding her to the pro side of his list, even with his mind already settled.

Mr. Ballard was gone, like Curtis’s own father. But as Sidra liked to point out, he hadn’t left by his own choice–Florie had kicked him out. And not for running around or hitting her or any of the usual reasons, but for buying Sidra too many horses. At least that was how Sidra put it, eyes flashing fury. Curtis figured there was probably more to the story. But Florie shrugged it all off, Sidra’s anger along with the whole notion of the man who had been her husband. “Pish, him? What was he ever good for? Doesn’t the place look nice? I keep it up fine without him, just like I always did.” She had said this, he remembered distinctly, over the body of a stray dog she had just shot for running the horses. That kind of woman had no need of a man.

His own mother had finally remarried. But for most of his growing up, since he was ten, they had been on their own, and he still wasn’t sure how his mother had survived it. She was no Florie Ballard. She hardly seemed strong enough to carry herself, let alone a son, through a single day. In the midst of preparations for some errand–a doctor’s visit, a trip to the store–she would sit down in despair. They would never make it in time, or the store would be closed, the prices too high, and who knew if a certain item might be found cheaper at Rigby’s across town? It was no use. He might tell her, carefully, that the supper she fixed tasted good. She would flick her fearful eyes over him–he couldn’t bear her eyes–say no, she should have put in more onions, she shouldn’t have cooked it so long. She would collapse in tears, wailing about the proportion of spices, what should have been done to avoid this ruin. “No, Mom, it’s fine,” he would insist, helpless. “It tastes real good.”

Eventually he lived with his grandmother close by, never knowing for sure who decided the matter, except that it wasn’t him and he had no say. In his iron bed under the sloping roof of his grandmother’s attic, he wondered where his mother was and if he would know it if she needed him. He dreamed up fires, wild animals, solid threats from which he could rescue her. He dreamed of his father’s return, ragged and starved, begging to be taken back into the house, and Curtis would bar the door with his body. “We don’t need you,” he would say. “It’s too late to be sorry now.”

***

Halfway into a rocker beside Florie, Curtis grimaced. His back was seizing into an angry, hoof-sized knot. It hadn’t bothered him much until he tried to put it in a chair. He finished sitting, released his breath.

Florie stared with her mouth open, and he explained, “I, uh, had a little run-in with a horse out back–”

“What, get bucked off?”

“Got kicked. Right in the back.” Speaking it made him feel injured and pitiable all over again. His face felt hot.

“Who did that? Not Simon!”

“Yeah, Simon. I caught him fair and square, you know, had the rope on his neck. Then I guess he just decided he didn’t want to be caught after all.”

“And he kicked you? That little jerk! He’s an old jerk, actually. Too old to be behaving that way.”

Sidra was headed up the hill from the barn, looking put out. “What’s going on, Curtis? Are we riding or not?”

By then Florie was beside his chair, coaxing him to lean forward so she could raise his shirt. “Not today, you’re not!” she shouted. “Come and see what your evil horse has done to this boy! He’s got a hoofprint on his back.”

‘really?” he asked, straining his head back over his shoulder as if he might be able to see. “A whole hoofprint?” He was pleased to have such dramatic proof for Sidra, who was otherwise bound to side with the horse.

‘don’t you move.” Florie turned his head back where it had been.

“God, Curtis.” Sidra was behind him now, opposite her mother. “How did you manage that?”

Their fingers trailed lightly over his skin, so light he could barely feel or tell how many fingers, who was touching. It felt like when Sidra would curl against his back after they made love and write silly messages with a finger on his skin, forcing him to guess the words. I love Curtis. Sidra is great. Sidra loves Gumby. Now he stretched his own hand to feel his back, and there were three hands reading the braille of his skin, a perfect U raised in ridges of flesh.

“Wow,” he said. “It didn’t really hurt that much. It doesn’t.”

‘son, you need to go to the emergency room,” Florie said firmly.

“No, I’m–”

“These things can be more serious than you think. You don’t mess around with a back.”

“Like when I broke my back,” Sidra said. He looked up at her, surprised.

“Yes, this same thing,” Florie said.

“I was riding, well, Simon, actually. Back in high school. Took a big, solid cross-country fence, and he was used to those little show ring fences that knock down–”

“They went ass over teakettle, both of them!”

“But I was fine, you know, a little sore. Got back up and everything. Rode some more fences, just to–”

“But the next day!”

“The next day, I went to get on my horse, put a foot in the stirrup and I thought someone had shot me in the back–”

“Turned out she had cracked two vertebrae and never knew it!”

‘so you never know about these things. You should go.”

“You should take him, Sidra. Right away.”

“Yes. Of course.”

He looked up at Sidra, feeling the heat return to his face. The afternoon sun was in his eyes, and Sidra was a haze of gold, close enough that he could smell her skin lotion even under a day’s layer of horses. She touched his hair. “I’m sorry this happened, sweetie. I should have gone out there with you.”

He looked away, swallowing back a sudden emotion. “I shoulda taken a carrot.”

***

He was in Sidra’s car before he thought to notice he was being put there, and then she was carting him to the hospital. Somehow he had let a couple of women turn a little bruise into a medical event. He wondered what Sidra would do if he got out at a stoplight and said he had places to be, no time for this silly shit. “Good-bye, Sidra. Just don’t call me for a while, okay?”

But she would never let him go, not injured. Not when he hadn’t even planned well enough to pick a fight with her, make her mad enough to send him off with such epithets as she was fully capable of. Maybe the horse had delivered not a final blow but only another delay, and perhaps that was the plan all along. Somehow, he would believe, Sidra was still moving the pieces in this game as easily as she drove the car, with him stuck in the passenger seat like an invalid.

He thought of a teenaged Sidra with her back broken, never suspecting. He imagined that he would have known it. Maybe, having unhooked her bra, he would have felt the bones through her skin, their edges made unfamiliar. He saw himself carrying her through the halls of the hospital, her head slumped at his shoulder and later, a doctor who would say something like, “Good job, young man. You’ve saved her. God knows what would have happened if not for your efforts.”

In the emergency room, Sidra put him in a chair and went to the front desk. It was far across the waiting room, an acre away, and he thought that was a ridiculous way to design a hospital. In the glare of fluorescent lights, he found it hard to focus on her distant back, her dirty cutoffs and T-shirt, thin legs browned with sun and stable dirt, the clip that still fastened her hair like the bite of a persistent animal–one of those lizards that go on biting after their heads are severed from their bodies. But all day, strands of blond had been escaping. He wanted to call out to her, but she was speaking with a nurse now, so far away. Pure Sidra, she wouldn’t have heard.

***

Because of a horse, she had refused to come out to Slocum’s the night before. Gumby, the last of her little herd, was being trailered over from his former home, a dirt lot rented by her father. She wanted to settle the horse in. “All night?” Curtis asked, incredulous. “How long does it take?”

He spent the evening in a sullen rage, drank too much beer, spoke to no one. “You got it rough with her,” said Lyle, the band’s drummer and his friend. “Even she couldn’t blame you now for having a good time–one night. Look at all that.” And Curtis couldn’t have missed the new blood, for it circled him, drawn to his brooding, all curves and shining eyes. Count on women to have the cure-all for anything that ailed you, simple as their bodies.

Drunk, he had driven home alone and turned without his knowing to the Ballard farm. He left his car in the road and stumbled over the long drive, between fences draped in honeysuckle that exhaled a thick summer breath into the night. Approaching this house always felt to him like entering a room walled in flowers, a secret pocket in the center of bulldozed dirt and the suburbs that had come up on all sides faster than kudzu. Only the Ballard land had not been sold to the developers. There were no lights on in the house and it was a darker shape against the sky, under the black limbs of the oak. He found her window up in the second story in the back. There was only a faint shine of starlight to distinguish the glass from the wall–he couldn’t tell if it was open or closed, shade drawn or not. Sidra’s new place, he thought of it, where they could not make love for fear of Florie’s hearing them. But really it was the oldest of rooms. She had slept there as a child, through nearly her whole life before him. It stunned him to think of a girl before him, a green stick ten years old, looking out that very window at nothing but horses.

Then he shuddered into a more sober awareness, noticed for the first time where he had come to. What the hell was she doing to him? He had to get control. Worse, she was not at the window to meet him, hair streaming moonlight like Rapunzel, which meant she must be somewhere else. If only in a dream behind the window, she was elsewhere, without him. The dew was turning cold at his shoes. His own father had walked out across a lawn like this one, past midnight, gone without even a note. What would the man have said, Curtis always wondered, if he had stopped to say goodbye? Would there have been any last advice, something dramatic and final that would fix him solidly in Curtis’s memory? All that remained was the man’s hard-jawed profile as he watched TV, voiceless, as if he had never spoken a word.

His mother’s new husband was nice enough. Curtis didn’t mind talking to him, but then again, it was obvious the man’s influence had done nothing for his own son. Curtis was half afraid if he listened too closely, he might be infected with whatever had made Faggot-boy the way he was. Closed in his room, Curtis strummed out a Lynyrd Skynyrd song that he thought of as his father’s song, sung not to his mother but to him. Last advice. If he sang the words, it was only in whispers: “I’m as free as a bird now, and this bird you cannot change.” It was the first song he’d ever learned, the one any crowd was bound to yell for after a few sets. It was the one song that Curtis, on stage, absolutely refused to play.

***

He sat on an exam table with his shirt off, waiting. Beside the door, Sidra thumbed a magazine she had brought from the waiting room, checked her watch. The article open across her knees said, “Fifty ways,” and he couldn’t make out the rest. Fifty Ways to Catch a Man, probably. It was one of those magazines. Then he thought, Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover.

“You’ll be glad you did this,” she said, glancing out the door, down the long hall. “It’s probably nothing, but you’ll just feel better, I promise. You won’t be wondering at every little twinge if you’re gonna be crippled for life or something.”

You, you, you. What about her? What was she in this, the chauffeur? She went out into the hall, beyond the doorway, and he felt tethered to the table. ‘sid?” he called, heard his voice crack like some terminal case.

In a few seconds she returned. “How long could it take to read an x-ray? Well, I suppose we’ve got nowhere better to go.” She found a box full of rubber gloves on a shelf. They were thin as membranes, and she plucked out a pair, pushed her hands into them. “Now vee must examine the patient.” She sidled toward him, snapping the rubber. “Please to remove the pants and bend over.”

“God, Sid.” His laugh ratcheted over the battered muscles of his back.

“Please not to laugh. Laughing can be very dangerous to the condition.”

“Then don’t make me laugh. It hurts.”

Her voice became her own again. “Now how could I make you do anything? If it hurts, that’s your own lookout.” She stood before him with her gloved hands on his knees, pushed them apart and eased her body up between his thighs. “I can’t help it if I’m a comic genius.”

He reached behind her head and took the alligator clip. Her hair uncoiled behind her, and she shook it out dramatically, tipping her head forward so a wild swath fell over one eye. “I bet that looks gorgeous, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah, as a matter of fact.”

“Let me fix it or something.”

And before he could stop her, she was gone, down the hall. He could hardly believe she was gone so fast, and he had thought of nothing to say in time. It was only because the hospital made him nervous, that her leaving seemed so final. He still held the clip, a spring-set pincer of hard plastic. He opened and closed it, set its teeth into the skin of his arm, and was surprised how strong the grip was.

“Is that better?” She was back, minus the gloves but otherwise looking not at all changed. Again she leaned out to the hall. “The doctor hasn’t come yet?”

‘sid.”

“Hmm?” She stared off down the hall.

‘sid, come here.”

“What?” Her eyes seemed bored or sleepy, he couldn’t tell.

“Come here.” He held out his hand until she gave hers over. He felt the echo of every motion toward her ripple through his back, which lent him an odd confidence. ‘sid, listen. Are you listening?”

“Yeah,” she said with a touch of impatience.

‘sid. Marry me.”

She paused a beat, then scoffed. “Please. Did you get kicked in the head?”

But her voice had fallen a shade in confidence, and he saw he had struck a blow after all, made contact. She had felt it. He smiled, and she shrank up against him as if she were cold, pushed her lips up to his, arms winding around his neck. Her hands fluttering off and on his bare shoulders, as though she could hardly stand to be careful. They were kissing when the doctor came in the room.

“Ah, young love,” he said with a smirk. “I promise he’s not dying yet. You can save some of that for later.”

He snapped a pair of x-rays up into the lightbox. The light flickered on, and there were the bones of Curtis’s chest, the shadows of his organs, the hollow bend of his neck in profile looking as delicate and fossilized as the remains of a prehistoric animal. It could have been anyone’s insides, but the doctor insisted it was him, proceeded to point out all the places he had not been damaged.

©2002 by Sheri Joseph. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.