“Jesus Christs Forever,” by Amber Burke

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fiction by Amber Burke

 

Shanda wears earplugs so she won’t wake up from the whoosh-by of late-night cars on the freeway. But she keeps being woken up by Bruce’s full-body jerks and twitches. Bruce is a truck driver who sits still all day, so it’s like his body tries to get all its exercise in at night. But this is the worst night ever. And it’s an important night because it’s their first real night as married people. Last night doesn’t count.

“You’re thrashing,” Shanda says to her new husband, finally, after a half hour of his thrashing. They’re in a motel in Bakersfield.

“I’m not thrashing,” Bruce says. She can hear him despite her earplugs. He has the kind of voice that just goes right through. “You just can’t sleep and you want to blame me. You just aren’t tired.”

“I am tired,” Shanda says. “I was falling asleep when we were watching TV. I’m so tired.”

“This is a good mattress. You can’t feel it when I move.”

“I can feel it,” she says.

“Why did I have to go and marry a goddamn baby?”

Shanda is sixteen. Bruce is older.

“You didn’t have to do anything,” Shanda says, her whole body tightening.

“Just go to sleep.”

Shanda explains, “I’m trying, but I can’t when you’re tossing and turning.”

“If I get on your nerves so much,” Bruce says, “you shouldn’t have married me.”

“I get on your nerves, sometimes. You let me know it,” Shanda says.

“Jesus Christ! One more word, and I swear I’m turning on the light,” he says. “Don’t make me turn on the light.”

“But—”

“Not one more word,” Bruce says. “Not even one.”

Shanda holds it in; she hates it when people say, “Jesus Christ!” in a fed-up way, like they’re fed up with her. Like they can’t stand it, they’re so fed up with her. It’s unfair for him to be so fed up, when she asked for one little thing.

Right then, she’s sorry she married Bruce, because she can only see a future of him telling her what she does and does not feel, of him always getting to be frustrated with her, never letting her be frustrated with him. Lying there, at that moment, she sees a line-up of Jesus Christs going on and on into forever. She can’t stand it! She doesn’t cry, though. It irritates him when she cries. If he hears her crying, he’ll say, “Jesus Christ.” She knows this because she cried last night in Las Vegas after she made the phone call to her mom to tell her she’d gotten married. She hadn’t wanted to call, at least not in the middle of the night, but Bruce told her to. He said, “If she loves you she’ll be happy for you.”

Her mom wasn’t happy for her. She hung up before Shanda could even talk to her sister.

“Jesus Christ!” Bruce said, when they were back in the truck and she was crying. “Who cares about her, if that’s how she’s gonna be? She’s not the boss of you anymore.”

Next to her, Bruce kicks his legs, as if to show her who’s boss.

Now Shanda isn’t tired. She’s wide awake. She has to take out her earplugs because her heart is too loud from the inside. She stares at the lumps of light, the still ones and the moving ones, in the maroon curtains, and listens to all the cars going somewhere, one after the other, on and on.

 

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In the past five days of their acquaintanceship, she and Bruce have fought sometimes. They fought when he wanted to listen to a talk show that was frizzy with static. She hates static. Static hurts her in ways he doesn’t understand. When she made any kind of mess in the truck, dropped fries or spilled coffee, he made a case of it. He’s a neat freak about the cabin. But he throws his trash out the windows! Anything he doesn’t want anymore, he chucks: a half-eaten sandwich, a watch that probably just needed a battery, a too-tight belt. They fought when she wanted to stop at a rest stop and he told her to hold it. Bruce never had to stop. He pissed in empty soda bottles and threw the piss bottles out of the window. “Dis-gus-ting,” she said. “Get used to it,” he said. That got better, though: he started leaving the bottles under the seat, to throw away at gas stations.

The worst was the buffet in Provo, yesterday’s lunch. She told Bruce not to bring his plate back when he went to get seconds. She had gone to lots of buffets, and she knew you weren’t supposed to bring your plate back.

Bruce made his eyes into little stones, then brought his same plate back to the buffet. He heaped it way up, then sat back down and bolted his food without looking at her once. Her stomach made a knot around the ribs and potatoes and spaghetti in it. They didn’t speak in the truck. Shanda had to go to the bathroom bad, but she held it. She clenched. He seemed about ready to toss her out of the window.

She didn’t say a thing until Bruce softened up enough to laugh at the radio. By then they were at the bottom corner of Utah.

“I’m missing stuff in school,” she said, testing.

Bruce said, “What you need isn’t school. What you need is goddamn life experience.”

She was sure then he didn’t want her to leave. She was glad: she never wanted to have to go back to South Dakota. She wanted to keep going places with Bruce. So she pointed out that Bruce liked to listen to the God shows. But he also liked to swear a lot, plus they were having sex. He said she was making him feel like a goddamn hypocrite, and he would love to marry her ass, being the kind of man who believed in marriage, but he didn’t want to cramp her style, because he knew how young girls liked to run around.

Shanda said, “I don’t like to run around.”

He said, “If you don’t want to run around, I would be happy to put a ring on your finger.”

He stopped at the very next rest stop, toilet paper all over the floor like streamers after a party, and followed her into the stall.

 

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Shanda pushes herself up, hands on the scratchy bedspread. She is wearing a white T-shirt of Bruce’s. Bruce doesn’t want her to wear anything to bed, but if she doesn’t wear a T-shirt the sheets make her itch.

“What now?” Bruce asks.

“I’m going to the bathroom,” Shanda says. “You can’t be mad at me for having to go to the bathroom.” She says that even though she knows he can. She gets out of bed and half trips over Bruce’s sneakers. She punts them out of her way. It feels good to kick something.

“You,” he says, “are asking for it.”

She hurries and closes the bathroom door. She turns on the light and the vacuum fan. She wants to scream. This is not the night she wanted! She just wanted Bruce to stop moving! She’s not supposed to complain or cry to the man she married, she’s not supposed to kick his shoes when they’re in her way, she’s not supposed to scream in the bathroom of a Motel Six, but she can’t hold everything in forever. She makes a frustrated sound through her nose. It’s like her mind is a motel hallway, and behind all its scuffed red doors she’s unhappy.

She sits on the toilet lid, her T-shirt and jeans and tennis shoes on the floor by her feet. She puts her elbows on her knees and her hands on her face, which feels dull and meaty, like someone else’s face. The vacuum fan is making a sound like it’s trying to suction out her brain. In the white bathroom light, she can see all the orange hairs poking out of her arms and her legs. Her freckles seem to float above her skin. She stares at the ring on her finger, the ring Bruce bought her last night on an installment plan, gold-gold with a fleck of diamond inside a flower shape.

She asks herself what she most wants to do. She doesn’t know. Then, all at once, she knows; she could open the bathroom door and tell her husband, “Watch!” as she stands over the toilet and drops the ring into the bowl. She can see it: he lunges; she flushes. While he shoves his hand down the bowl, she leaves. The daring bigness of the gesture pleases her. It would mark the waste of it all. He would have nothing for what he paid for the ring—not a wife, not a ring—and she would have nothing for the hours she spent in his truck, looking out the window while he peed into soda bottles.

It satisfies her to think, I could end it right now. She feels a sense of power. He thinks he’s in charge, because he’s older, and because of his right-through-earplugs voice, but everything is up to me.

The thing is, Bruce is the one who wastes things, who tosses things out windows. She decides not to flush the ring, because that’s something he would do. And because the ring might do her some good. She’s never pawned anything, but she supposes she could get a couple hundred dollars for it. She imagines some man behind a glass counter biting it to see if it’s real, and trying to tell her it isn’t real. She would get angry. She’s getting angry, just thinking about it.

Then she has it; she knows what to do. She will just put the ring on the nightstand and go. Less bother, and dignified besides. That would make it clear that she can take care of herself. She has a one-hundred dollar bill folded six times in a zipper pocket on the side of her left shoe. No one knows about the hundred dollars or the pocket besides her.

Where would she go, though?

Venice Beach was nice this morning. They went there for their honeymoon, because it was on the way to Bakersfield. It smelled like dead fish and the sand was full of cigarette butts, but she liked looking at the people. In Venice Beach, you could wear just an American flag and roller skates, or you could put your hair in dreadlocks and sleep on the street, and people would give you money. You could make money sculpting sand dragons, or reading palms. You could paint yourself silver and stand on a box, and if you held absolutely still, people would put change in your bucket. Shanda could do any of those things.

She tries to remember what it was like in the other states they’d been through, but she’s forgetting all the people and cities and roads; they rose into dust behind the truck. Now that she’s in California, California seems like the only state in the world, its bent-elbow shape on the low hip of the country the only shape she’s ever known.

She’s calming down. She’s calming down to think of leaving Bruce, staying around here. And making new friends. Or no friends. She’s never been big into friends.

She will do what she did in Spearfish then: go to the truck stop and wait for a ride. She bends over and picks up her clothes. She gets dressed. She grabs Bruce’s toothpaste and a soap and shampoo, and puts them in her paper bag.

 

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Shanda had not meant to leave Spearfish for good. Her no-good friend Dee, who was supposed to be her ride to a bachelorette party in Deadwood, ended up having to work a double shift at Sombrero Heaven, so Shanda sat and waited for a ride on the curb at the Flying J Truck Stop. She had her sister Wendy’s ID in her pocket, and a dress, some underwear, and a toothbrush in a paper bag. It was getting late. The wind blew leaves across the parking lot and her orange hair into her mouth.

There’d been plenty of trucks. Trucks with chickens. But she didn’t want to be in the chicken trucks, chickens crammed into cages, wings everywhere, broken-off beaks. Or in the trucks with old fat men for drivers. She saw some of those men and just thought about them farting into their seats for years. She got offers. She said, “No, thanks.”

Then Bruce stopped in his semi. Bruce wasn’t handsome, but he wasn’t old, and he wasn’t fat. She came up to him when he was standing at the pumps.

“What’s in the truck?” she asked.

“Peaches,” he said.

She liked the idea of riding on a peach truck.

“Want one? I’ve got a box up front,” Bruce asked, opening his driver’s side door and reaching in.

She bit into the peach while Bruce filled up. It tasted sweet in a way that made her whole mouth pucker, and a little like gas. The inside was a splay of red around a little stone.

“Want a lift?” Bruce asked, when his tank was full.

It was up to her: she could go or not go. Everything was up to her. She could go, and get off the truck whenever she wanted to. She knew she could get off, even when it was moving: if she had to, she could cross her hands over her heart and roll, like she’d had to do once when she was little, when her dad hadn’t shut her door all the way on their drive back from the bar in Sturgis one winter afternoon. She held her hands tight to her chest, made herself as small as she could, and rolled; she rolled down a hill over packed snow, faster and faster, and stopped hard, whomp, like a full-body bruise. But her dad made her feel like a hundred bucks, after he got her out of the ditch on the side of the highway, telling her that he was proud of her, that she was his special invincible daughter. Later that afternoon, Shanda had hated her mom for yelling at her dad—Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ!—when she was fine, just a little scraped up, and that was the nicest time she’d ever had with her dad. After that her mom took her and her sister away.

Shanda got in the truck with Bruce. And pretty soon they were in hills covered with Christmas trees. A few stars poked out, and then, just behind them, there was a low moon on its back, like a white boat going somewhere good. She didn’t get off to go to the bachelorette party. She decided she didn’t like the girl whose party it was anyway. She stayed with Bruce.

For the first two days, Shanda amused herself paging through the worn atlas, tallying license plates, flipping people off. Bruce listened to talk shows starring God, which he said levitated his mind out of the gutter. After the peaches, they hauled things in boring-looking boxes.

The first two nights, Shanda slept in her own room.

But Bruce was super nice. He bought her food at the truck stops and fast food restaurants where they stopped for lunch and dinner. He got napkins and straws for her, and even reached one hand over to massage her neck while he drove, thumb pressing into the little bulbs of her spine.

On the third night, they stopped in a bar in Casper, Wyoming, that Bruce said he always went to. Shanda showed her sister’s ID and got in no problem. Bruce stood by her barstool and ordered beers. They watched people come and go and sit and be loud.

“Do you know anyone?” Shanda asked.

“I don’t talk to other truck drivers. They aren’t interested in expanding their horizons,” said Bruce, eating peanuts, handful after handful.

Shanda told Bruce about her older sister Wendy, who lived in the basement of their mom’s house with her kid. How Shanda wanted a bigger horizon than a basement. Bruce told her he knew the feeling. He said he had an ex-wife and two kids, and when he went home to Mandan, he slept in their basement.

After a while, Bruce slid his beer in front of the neon sign behind the bar. “Your hair is the color of beer,” Bruce said. “Lit-up beer.”

That night, they slept in the same room. She clenched up and waited. It didn’t take long for it to be over. He reminded her of a boy in her class who went fast like that. Bruce said, “That’s how lonely I was.”

And then it happened again, and that time, she was open and warm. Afterward, she just lay there, as flattened-down and wide as the whole state of Wyoming.

In the truck the next day, when Bruce told her to stop staring at him, she looked at the pastel-colored atlas states and tried not to smile. Montana leaned over Idaho, like a man kissing her ear forever.

 

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Shanda turns off the bathroom light and tiptoes over to the nightstand in the dark. She takes her ring off. She puts it on the nightstand.

She stands there. Bruce is on his side, turned away from her, and his white back is the brightest thing in the room. She wonders if he’s thinking about how bad he feels for speaking to her the way he did. There is a whole empty stretch of bed next to him. Shanda is getting tired, thinking about waiting by a truck stop again. She picks up the ring again, squeezes it in her hand like she is trying to change its shape, trying to make it feel like it felt last night.

 

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It was late when they got there, but all of Las Vegas was still open. Bruce took her to a ring store on a corner, and told her to choose a ring—any ring in the place, whichever one she wanted. She looked through the smudged plastic at the rings pinched in velvet rows. She pointed to a ring that was so expensive it hurt. Bruce turned red, but he nodded. “Whatever you want.” She said, “I don’t even like that one,” then picked one of the cheaper ones.

Shanda put on her dress in the truck, and they went to the Chapel of Endless Love at 11:00 PM, and at 11:15 PM they left as married people, more or less: Bruce and Wendy. (Bruce said God knows who’s who, and would pardon her for using her sister’s ID.) To celebrate, Bruce said they could go for a midnight dinner, anywhere, you name it. She didn’t want to have to walk far—her legs felt shaky, like she was standing up in a moving truck—so she chose Sam’s Buffet, which was right there. She decided in advance that she wasn’t going to say anything about the plates. But when Bruce went back for seconds, he left his first plate on the table, and took a new plate at the buffet. On still another plate, he brought her back dessert: two kinds of pie, with lots of whip cream.

After that, Shanda made the phone call to her mom, and she and Bruce fought, but just a little, then did new things to each other in the cabin of the truck, and then Bruce started driving, and she fell asleep, a married lady, in a truck, going west. When she woke up they were in California. The sky that morning—this morning!—was a strawberry–cherry–whip cream–swirled mess on a plate.

 

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Bruce isn’t thrashing now. He’s being completely still. It occurs to Shanda, as she stands there, looking at her husband’s back, rising and falling, that he listened to her. She furrows her brow and thumbs her ring and looks at him not moving. Is this how it will work? Like the piss bottles. And the buffet. She’ll get on him about something, and he’ll get angry, but then he’ll end up doing what she asked? She realizes that what they are doing is figuring each other out, which is what people do when they love each other.

She nudges the ring back onto her finger, sets her bag down, slips under the covers in her clothes and her shoes.

“Bruce,” she says. She wiggles against him from behind, her knees crooking into his knees from behind. She knows things she didn’t know before, about how the states jigsaw, about how two people can fit together. She can’t be still: she wants to tell him she loves him, that he is making her horizons grow. She wants to be under his big body and feel him crushing her the way he does, spreading her out. “Bruce. Wake up.” She runs a nail over his soft, big back. He jerks, then he reaches for the light. She hears the pull of the chain, the click.

“What did I tell you—”

Before her eyes can adjust, she recognizes that the rest of her life will have these flashes: angry and bright. But she can tolerate a fight, she can tolerate even his Jesus Christs, if she knows that on the other side is what she wants. She is strong. She is invincible. Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ! She can clench herself small and tight, roll right under his anger. Roll right through the wheels of all his curses in vain, again and again, to get to the part of him that must love her.

Outside, cars, then silence, then cars.

 

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This excerpt is featured content from the

Fall 2013 issue

For ordering information or to find out more about the contents of this issue, click here.

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