Can’t Breathe, Laughing – CONTEST WINNER

by M. Goerig

No one sees the axle snap; they only see the precarious tilt of the camper as it droops suddenly on one side. It had four rear wheels and now it has two. Just like that, the pair is gone from the vehicle, bouncing away on its own. Across the lanes of traffic it goes, before disappearing down the slight slope on the side of the highway. Yet still the crippled camper continues its forward surge, now with flashes of fire flying from the side that dropped— sprays and sprays of fire, like a fistful of sparklers. The large, lumbering form has begun losing speed and it no longer appears ready to capsize. The flashes of fire finally stop, and the vehicle itself finally stops as it comes to an abrupt rest in the shoulder of the road.

The boys in the tractor trailer watched the whole thing happen. Now they’re just sitting in their cab, parked on the shoulder behind the camper and staring at its awkward tilt. They don’t know who’s inside the vehicle but they’re each assuming it’s a creepy old man. Only a creepy old man would drive a jalopy like that.

“Look over there.”

The larger of the two follows the pointed finger of his companion to see what he has seen: a wildfire. After the two tires bounced away, they landed in a pile of dry brush and the hot metal of the snapped axle ignited the nest of dead grass on impact. Now a small inferno has begun to rage. They both reach for the fire extinguisher at the same time, the larger one grabbing it first, and they open their doors, each leaping down to the pavement and sprinting towards the flames. The larger one points the black nozzle and squeezes the trigger to release all the foam that’s inside, but it’s not enough—just a splash, really. The blaze sputters for a second, then springs back to life. The smaller one has his phone out and he’s dialing for a fire truck while the larger one stalks back towards the rig, tossing the empty canister to the ground before continuing on to the camper.

Traffic whizzes past him but only occasionally because it’s a Saturday at about four o’ clock in the afternoon and everyone has driven to the beach six hours south to spend the long holiday weekend sprawled across the sand. When he finally reaches the driver’s side window and ducks a little to be able to see inside, his head does a tiny jerk against his neck. It’s a reflexive gesture of surprise at seeing a woman behind the wheel. She’s tall and thin with dark hair, and she’s dressed in jeans and short-sleeves that show off the long, bright streaks of tattoos on either of her forearms. Beside her is a large, white dog. Pressed against her ear is a phone and it takes her a moment to see the larger one standing there and waiting. When she does see him, she jumps, flinching away from the glass.

He smiles, his expression full of benevolence. Then he steps back a little, as if to make sure she doesn’t feel invaded upon. He holds up a hand, appearing to surrender, and then he’s blown from her view— whisked away as if he were a mere piece of tissue on the wind, his face barely given time to register the surprise, the horror, the pain and the regret of being slammed into by a barreling two-ton hunk of steel.

She shudders. A giant chill has just passed through her body. Her mouth opens and a noise escapes but it’s not a scream. The noise she makes is more like a grunt, as if an enormous hand has just pressed all of the air from her diaphragm.

And for a moment— a split second short enough to never even hear it in the first place— there is silence. Absolute silence.

###

He was the larger of the two in all possible ways; literally taller and wider, but also more gregarious and more effusive, and just more of everything in the way of taking up space in this world. They weren’t brothers but they may as well have been for all the rivalries between them, as well as a fierce, fierce love. It was the sort of love which is never discussed, nor even acknowledged, but which exists, as sure as the progression of time. Each had a wife and two small children at home, yet neither man actually spent much time with his family. For ten years now, the two of them had been driving partners. Ten years is longer than either of them had been married, and while neither dared joke about it, each knew in his heart of hearts that this bond was more like a marriage than either real life matrimony. On most days of the week, each was the first thing the other saw in the morning and, in turn, also the last thing at the end of every night. In fact, one time when they were off the road and each was at home sleeping in his own bed, the larger one awoke to find his arm flung over the waist of his wife. Yet before he opened his eyes, before he saw who he was actually clutching, he thought that it was the smaller one and for a split second— a moment both short enough to blink away but long enough to never forget— he felt a happiness unlike anything he had ever in his life experienced.

Other moments had come close. The time he’d finally learned to ride his bike, when he’d looked behind him to see his father beaming with pride— that had produced a deeply profound sense of joy. Or his first orgasm— that, too, was palpably euphoric in the same sense as when a person is cold and goes outside to stand under the sun, letting its rays soak through layer upon layer of clothing until the heat finally finds the skin buried beneath.

Yet the larger one knew this moment was different. The blip of extreme happiness he’d felt in the simultaneous instant of delusion was something he could never put to words, and thus, he could never compare it to anything else. Worse: he already knew that the moment, and thus the feeling, was gone and gone forever. It was never there in the first place and thus would never return, because how can something come back when it never even arrived?

And yet, he grieved the loss of that moment which had never happened in the first place. He felt a deflation as physical as a popped balloon.

It rankled him. It got deep into his mind. He could feel it without being able to see it, just as a small hair lies on the back of an eyeball— except that even if he had been able to pinch this so-called fuzz between his fingers and pull it from where it was hiding, relishing the deliciously satisfying sensation of fiber moving through socket to finally be pulled free, he would not have wanted to observe it as a wispy thing perched on his fingertip. He did not want to see it; he merely wanted it gone.

He fucked his wife that morning. He fucked her hard, driving himself against and inside of her with near-brutality. She didn’t like it, nor dislike it; she only wondered from whence it had come. She felt as if he’d created a new compartment for her, as he’d already done elsewhere in his life: purpose, fulfilled by his work; legacy, fulfilled by his children; vitality, fulfilled (on the occasions that he was in town) by his Thursday night basketball games at the rec center; faith, fulfilled by the gold cross given to him by his mother and mounted to the roof of the cab over the driver’s seat; and conquest, fulfilled by the ring he’d pushed onto her finger seven years beforehand.

The morning he fucked her was more than conquest, however. She could feel it and she could see it. He was not merely enjoying the flesh of his bride, as she’d witnessed in other encounters. He was verifying it, testing it, making sure it was real, and all the while, there was something else. It was almost another presence. It was a predator chasing her husband. It was hunting him and making him cower, then rise tall to bellow at it and shake his head, as an angry dog does when ripping apart its prey. This thing was in the bed with them and she could feel it, but all she could do otherwise was wonder in a half-detached way what it was, because it did not scare her as it seemed to scare him; it only puzzled her.

###

The smaller one was never anything more than small. He’d been small at birth and he’d been small among his peers and even beside his wife he was small. She was also small— even smaller than him. Yet, he was still only small because her lack of size did not amplify his stature; it merely confirmed it, as in: “You two are perfect together. You’re both so itty! So itty-bitty.”

The smaller one did not want to be known only by his size, however, and so he chose to become funny, as well. He was so funny, he was almost always voted the funniest in his class, and then on into adulthood, every single person who met him for the first time would eventually say with marvel: “That guy was so funny.” They always put extra emphasis on the adjective, too— as if it was an unbelievable thing, to be so funny.

As a magician pulls silk scarves from other people’s ears, the smaller one pulled jokes from thin air. Take, for example, this one time when he and his wife (Despite everything, don’t think for a minute he didn’t love his wife.) were talking about their oldest child. The boy was five at the time and the wife was expressing concern about the fact he was still coming into their room at night. He would crawl into the small space of mattress between the husband and the wife and fill it with his little body, with his uncertainty, with his testing of boundaries. She said to her husband: “If we don’t stop it now, it will never end.” To which he replied: “There could be some benefit to that— you know, on the nights when I’m not in the mood.”

Of course the wife dropped her jaw and gasped and then rolled her eyes, hitting his arm in a light punch, but she also smiled and laughed, because it was just the sort of thing her husband always did: mocked a serious thing, turned it on its head, found the funny where no one else had bothered to look.

###

Just as a knife has both a sharp side and a dull side, just as a mountain can have a rainforest beyond one face and a desert beyond the other, the smaller one had a deadly serious personality to oppose his funny one. There were times when he thought: Stop. He thought: Step away. But then he thought: Stop what? Were not doing anything; were just friends.

And yet. And yet.

He would practice distance. He would have the urge to text something to the larger one— an observation maybe, but more often than not it was something he’d overheard in line at the store. He would start to type whatever it was into his phone, but then he’d notice he had written the last three messages, all of them unanswered, and so he would stop himself and slide the phone back into his pocket. Later though, he’d see the larger one again and he wouldn’t be able to stop those aborted words from flowing out of his mouth.

“I heard the funniest thing today…”

“Oh, yeah?” Hahahaha. “That is funny.”

He would think: I need to go farther. I need to go. I need. And then he’d let those last two words roll around in his mind awhile and he’d hate them, and he’d hate himself, and he’d hate him, too–– the larger one–– he’d hate him as well. He’d hate how he could just amble up to the cab and get inside and put on his seatbelt and turn the key and drive. As if there were nothing else in the world to do, as if there were no other way to feel, as if this were it. He’d hate, too, how the larger one expected the smaller one to be funny, as if he only had one side.

###

There is one particularly strong memory in the smaller one’s mind. It was early in their driving days together and they had for some insane reason brought the smaller one’s dog with them on a two-week stretch of work. It’s the only time the smaller one can remember bringing the dog along, probably because of what then happened, and while he can’t remember where they were exactly, or what day of the week it was, or whether it was early in that two-week stint or late, he remembers other details about it. He knows they were trying to hit the road early and they wanted to drive hard all day, and so they’d taken the dog to a patch of land just outside whatever town it was where they’d stayed the night before, and they’d set him free to run for a bit. It was pretty cold, because the smaller one remembers how the smoke billowed from the larger one’s mouth every time he spoke, and also how he’d turned up the collar on his jacket to protect his neck, and finally, the hunch of his frame as he’d shoved his hands as far into his pockets as they’d go. The sun was coming up as they stood there, not saying much but saying enough to have that memory of smoke coming from the larger one’s mouth, and everything began to turn magenta, even the frosty tips of weeds that looked like wheat in that overgrown field off the highway. Pink shafts of grain. The smaller one remembers noticing how smooth the larger one’s jaw looked, despite the unforgiving glare of light, and then he remembers tearing his gaze away, although it didn’t feel at the time as if he were tearing it away; it felt more like he was just looking at something else.

Looking for his dog, in fact. He looked out across the vast expanse of beige with bright rays cutting across everything, creating dusty beams, like from a movie projector, when you can see all that’s floating through the air and you remember some long-forgotten science lesson about how some of those particles are skin— human flesh mixed into all the pollen and other crap. It was then that the smaller one felt as if he’d torn his gaze from the larger one’s face, because it was then that he realized he couldn’t see his dog anywhere, and so it was then that he suddenly felt as if he’d been staring for far too long at something he was not supposed to be staring at. He had not been paying attention to that to which he was meant to be paying attention.

He remembers the sound that caught inside his throat. It was not a sob, nor a bellow, nor a laugh. Rather it was something like a voice speaking just as a door is closing— the start of noise, and then the abrupt clip. Gone. He remembers also the jerk of the larger one’s head. The instinctive click of logic and a sharp swivel of reaction. Then there was the larger one’s question, the one that skipped all other questions, leapfrogging simply to: “Where is he?” Following that was the lack of need to answer, because the searching eyes of the smaller one already said it all. The moment of realization and the dread and the loathing were all smashed into one tiny fraction of a second. He remembers hearing himself yell the dog’s name and being aware, even then, that he didn’t want to hear himself yelling the name because it was admitting a problem, the possibility of loss. Next he heard the larger one join in calling the dog: “Come on, boy! Let’s go!” And still he can hear in the larger one’s voice, that false tone of optimism, of faking it.

It felt as if they stood there forever, yelling and yelling and yelling–– hoarse, stubborn, their boots planted firmly. Not going anywhere. No, not now. Not ever. Not ’til he comes out from wherever he is.

And then! Oh! A distant shape. Far, far away, on the farthest side of the field, too far to be able to make out what it was. Yet, without even turning his head, the smaller one knew the larger one had seen it too. In his peripheral vision he saw the shoulders of the larger one tense up and he heard him stop calling, just for a second, and then it was clear the distant shape was the dog. That stupid beast. He was the reason they’d both felt their hearts go into their throats, finally understanding how anyone could ever have come up with such an expression in the first place: hearts in throats. Then they were shaking their heads and glancing at each other, but not too much, because they’d each have seen the thin line of moisture, the sheen on each of their eyeballs, the ridiculous amount of relief which had suddenly crashed on top of the crushing despair which had been there only moments before.

And then: what’s wrong? They both noticed it at the same time— the dog’s sudden slowing down, the reluctance in gait, the drop of tail; the slight turn of head, like shame, like pain.

“Is he limping?”

“Is he hurt?”

“Is he hurt?”

There was the jolt as they both sprang to action— a synchronized step forward with the renewed fear that something was indeed wrong, that nothing lasts forever; that everyone will one day go. Or change. Or stay the same, while everything and everyone else goes and changes.

But oh! Oh, look! It’s! Haha. It’s! Oh, hahahaha.

Doubled-over, laughing. Backs of hands against sides of mouths, laughing. Can’t see, can’t hear, can’t remember, laughing. Can’t breathe, laughing. Can’t do anything but stand there, laughing.

“He’s rolled in—”

“Shit!”

“He’s rolled in shit!”

“Look at him!”

“He’s covered in it!”

“And he knows! He knows he’s in trouble.”

“Oh, he’s avoiding us.”

“Where did he even find it?”

“What is it?”

“It’s shit!”

“But what kind?”

“I don’t know. Sheep shit?”

“Sheep shit. Stupid, fucking dog rolled in sheep shit.”

Oh, hoo hoo hoo. Hee hee hee. Ha ha ha.

###

Had the smaller one imagined it? Had he projected his own feelings onto the larger one? Perhaps he was deceived, as deceived as a child who sees the moon and believes it’s all lit up by itself, and not by the brilliant sun. The smaller one doesn’t know—will never know—because the larger one never told the smaller one about the morning he awoke spooning his wife and thought she was the smaller one. He didn’t tell him and now he’s gone. He’s as gone as anything is gone when it’s gone— a cookie, a scarf, a dog. No more. Surely it will turn up again. Surely it’s not lost forever. Surely there’s a crumb, a fiber of cotton, a piece of fur. Surely there’s some remnant somewhere to prove the thing existed.

And yet. And yet.

When a breeze comes along and takes the thing that is perched on the tip of a finger, the thing still exists, yes, but the skin no longer feels it and the eyes no longer see it and the memory of it is all that’s left.

There are flames, so many flames, by this point. They’ve risen from the plot of land where they began and they’re consuming more than just weeds and rubber; they’re consuming air and dirt, and they’re about to start on pavement— on the road itself–– the very pathway which brought these people together. But neither the smaller one nor the woman in the camper sees this. Everyone else can see it. Traffic has stopped all at once. There was very little traffic before and now there’s nothing but traffic. People are everywhere and they’ve started calling for fire trucks, honking their horns, as if the honking will do anything to stop anything. But it feels as if they’re doing something and this distracts them from the fact they’re just sitting there helplessly, seat belts strapping them into their seats, phones in their limp hands, heads swiveling and looking at all the others who are also trapped, while they mutter: “When are they going to get here? What could they possibly have going on today with everyone out of town that they can’t get here already?”

That’s what these people in their cars see, because they have not yet inched forward— past the wall of flames and the parked tractor trailer and the crippled camper. These people in their cars have not yet come upon the rest of it— the rest of him. Tall, boyish and broad, hair thick like moss on a rock, nose long and straight. A belly in its beginning phase. These are blown down and scattered. These are the remnants.

And the woman in the camper is still sitting in the driver’s seat, the air still pushed out of her, because the entire thing has just happened. She’s barely had time to register it—well, she has had time. In fact, she’s had more than awhile now but a person can probably never have enough time to register such a thing as what she’s seen. She can see the smaller one, though. He’s on the other side of her windshield and he’s bent over, mouth open as if he’s gagging. Or coughing. Or laughing.

In fact, he simply has his mouth open. His mouth is open and no sound is coming out, but in his head there’s a whir of activity. It’s a centrifuge of images, moving so fast he can barely identify them: hands on a steering wheel; smoke from a mouth; neck in a collar; frost on weeds; light cutting light; sparking flashes of fire; laughing, laughing, laughing; eyes squinted shut, laughing; doubled-over, laughing; head thrown back, laughing; a child, laughing; a woman, laughing; a man beside him, laughing.

The smaller one is not breathing. His mouth is still open but nothing is going in, nor coming out, nor can he hear anything. His mind is quiet and frozen. He is there but he’s not really there. The world is there but it’s not really there. It feels like nothing at all. He feels like nothing at all.

And then, as if a switch is flipped, as if a barreling object of great mass has suddenly just slammed into him, he has the most incredible urge to see his dog. Of all things, he wants his dog there with him. He wants to bury his face in that dog’s neck full of fur and he wants to rub the beast’s belly and to feel that rough tongue against his hand, against his cheek, against his closed eyes. It’s absurd, this urge. That dog died a long time ago— poisoned by someone, presumably a neighbor. But the smaller one is thinking now how the larger one cried when he heard the news. He’s thinking about how his shoulders shook and how no noise even escaped him for all the wracking that those sobs had wreaked on his large, sturdy frame.


 

M Goerig headshotBorn in the Northeast and raised in the South, M. Goerig has lived a lot of places and worked a lot of jobs. She earned an undergraduate degree in journalism but skipped the MFA in favor of a year-long road trip with her dog. Currently, she resides in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she is working on a novel in connected stories based very loosely on said road trip. Work has also been published in Airplane Reading, Fugue, Snapping Twig and Cleaver Magazine.

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