Forked Roads

“How many candles do you see? Mother? How many? Can you see how many? Sit up. It’s your daughter, Eve. Count, Mother. There are sixty-nine.”

I remember ’69. Hell, I remember the burning bush. I remember I could knock a woman flat.

“Come on, Mother. You’re still strong; look at your biceps. Oooh, let’s clap everyone. Caroline, show your grandma your pretty card. See! A Purple Heart, Mother. Caroline’s learned all about military decorations this week in social studies.”

I’m in Taos in 1969 when Janis Joplin sings “Piece of My Heart,” and I already have lost my heart to Wesley Sloan. I love everything about Wesley Sloan: his Jesus hair, his red flannel shirt, his grandma quilt patches on his jeans—even though I find out his old girlfriend sewed them on.

“Let’s all get a shot with your grandmother. Here, get little Tina in the picture. Tina just learned to whistle. Will you whistle ‘Yankee Doodle’ for your grandma?”

When Wesley whistles, I listen. I’m not ashamed or anything. He knows how to whistle with two fingers louder than a train. Index and middle in his mouth, all brown and taupe, lips like Mick’s but hidden under a walnut-colored mustache. And when it was time for an encore he shouts, “Summertime” so loud Janis just waves to him like he’s her old lost friend. She salutes, blows him a kiss. Living is so damned easy.

“Okay, let’s get the grandkids to help Mother blow out the candles. She played the harmonica, you know. You remember that, guys? So she can muster the wind to whip these little things. Sean, can you count up to sixty-nine? Let’s count together.”

I fantasize so hard about Wesley putting a piece of wedding cake in my mouth it almost makes me come. This birthday cake’s already covered in candy-colored wax and snot.

“Put down that knife, Sean. Tina—smile. Caroline… Caroline? Get ready, Caroline; get closer to your grandmother. That’s it. Look at the candles. Smile.”

Wesley can’t stand to have his picture took. He has an extra large smile from a knife fight in Tupelo, and when he blushes that scar purples. He has two dachshunds and an old basset hound named Orbison who can howl like a siren at the moon. He leaves them in the Haight when he’s on the road. He carries pictures of them though, and shows them to every man, woman, and child he meets.

Wes and I met doing summer stock in New Hampshire in 1968. He was a rope guy backstage, counter-weighting the scenery and hauling the curtains. He’d run lights, too, all elbows and arms moving the levers like a spider. I was the stage manager. He’d call me Stage Ma for short. I knew he needed a mother since he’d never had one. Foster-raised by a rich Long Island family. Took care of their boys. Then he dropped out of automotive school to deal weed and speed. He was laying low in North Conway when we both got hired on at the White Mountain Festival Players. September come, and I was supposed to head back to my crummy railroad flat on the Lower East Side. Instead, we hit the road.

“Oh, Mother, are you happy? Kids, she’s only crying because she must be so happy. The best birthday ever!”

You want to see weeping and bawling you should have taken a Polaroid of me after our last strike. The Pajama Game, was it? Or Cactus Flower. This is nothing. A trickle and a sniffle. Wesley pulls his blue Chevy Nova around the back barn door where we’ve just loaded out the last of the flats. It’s the first Tuesday in September. Late morning. Wesley motions me over and asks me to ride with him. Normal person asks, where we riding. I just say, give me three minutes. We truck around the Southwest in that Nova. Must have thousands of miles on it. Spend the winter in San Francisco at his friend’s commune. Dashboard clutch. H-shaped. Thousands and thousands of miles. More than the stars in the Mojave sky.

“Bet Mother wants some ice cream cake. Let’s go, kids. Here, Tina, hold Sean’s hand. Sean? Sean, get your hands out of your underpants. Hold hands and blow. That’s right. On three. Here we go. Oh, wait, Eliza, honey. Go get the plates and forks.”

We’re heading back to San Fran from Taos one day when the road splits in three directions before us like an upside down peace sign or a pitchfork. The Nova knew how to pick its moment to conk out. It was jealous. Loved Wesley too, but I was the one getting his so that car waits for the desert to start its radiator pissing and snarling and poops out, rolls to a stop. We’re nowhere now. Haven’t eaten anything but those little white pills. We sit on the shoulder cross-legged and smoke a doobie, squinting at the endless space over each other’s shoulders. Wesley says, let’s walk. Not a quarter mile, we come to the three-way. No signs of which leads where. Sun’s setting to our left. We can choose from due north, northwest, or northeast. We know back the way we come there’s nothing but New Mexico. It’s Wesley’s idea to split up, double the chance of finding help. Our plan is we find a tow, double back to meet at the peace sign.

“Wait, Sean. Wait. Mother has to make a wish before we cut the cake.”

I wish I never left him. We walk and wave to each other for a while. Then there’s a dip and his road lowers or mine goes up a bluff and I can’t see him. Like he’s gone into the ground, some hippie Orpheus. I thumb a ride about twenty-five minutes later. I know it was twenty-five because I count the seconds we’re apart, going fifty-seven, fifty-eight, fifty-nine and then the new minute and I make it to twenty-five. Twenty-six is the number of lovers I’ve had in my life, not counting nice old Edward, my last husband, and it is how old I will be next December 8, which is what you get when you add two and six. Our birthdays are twenty-six days apart. An Indian woman, Arapaho, maybe, or Apache, driving an old Ford pickup stops and gives me a ride. Wes and I never realized we were on a reservation. She leaves me at the tribal police station. I make a mess of calls. I am a mess. An officer figures out he should call my parents before I pass out with grief or fury. I’m on fumes.

“Sean! Be patient and civilized, or your grandmother will think you’re a little savage. And watch your hands. Keep them out of your sister’s underpants, too.”

We know we’d rather jump from the Golden Gate Bridge than miss out on each other’s lives. So when Wes says, you go northeast and I’ll go northwest, my mind must been half-baked to agree. That decision pains me more than the bed sores that never heal. It’s one of life’s cuts that reopens, pusses, crusts over, reopens.

“Mother gets to make the first cut. You can do it, right Birthday Girl? Hold the knife, here. Girls, put your hand on the knife, too. And wait for the flash. Wait! Oooh. That blinded me.”

The night is so dark at 2 a.m. I can’t see my sandals or where the tips of my toes are bleeding. I’ve been waiting so long. Waiting since noon. Waiting almost fourteen hours so I jump when I see the headlamps bouncing in the distance, and yet it is still almost an hour until Mummy and Daddy get here. All the way from Phoenix. I haven’t slept in more than four days. Not since San Antonio. I am fueled by speed. Two days earlier, we’d stopped popping and started snorting. And I am fueled by Wesley, for he’s better than sleep. I am fueled by freedom, the freedom from endless tech meetings and fight rehearsals and ten-minute calls before “Places, please.” Calling cues for ten weeks straight and cold stone sober, too. Made my parents believe my rehab that spring would be my last. I thought so, too. “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

“Open. Open, Mother. Look at what strong teeth Grandma has. She has all her teeth, and her canines are as strong as a wolf’s, isn’t that right?”

The night they come get me, Mummy holds me in the back seat while I’m screaming at Daddy to drive me back. But the next morning, I’m in a gown and they’re attaching the worm wires to my head, and then I bite so hard something splinters and I sleep, sleep through the four months at Demarest—until I start to fake swallow their pills. They release me, and Mummy shows me to my childhood room still filled with my erector sets and dinosaur collection. The next night I sneak out to the Greyhound station.

“Oh, you’re not scared, are you, Tina? Caroline? Here, you two share these big pieces. Sean, you have to sit and wait your turn.”

I wait only about thirty minutes for the next bus to San Francisco. I can smell Wesley in the air as I walk up Market Street. In the Haight, I run into Miriam and she says I should ask around at Jack’s Flop Palace. Ed, the manager, knows Wesley and me. He says he hasn’t seen him since one night last week when he came into the office puking and sweating. I feel nauseous now and my hairs on my arms tingle. It is New Year’s Eve and cold. I want to fly but I won’t get high without Wesley. Ed says Wes is hanging around with Bill Mack and so I go to his place and knock. He is pretty strung out so it takes a few minutes of beard scratching for him to figure out who I am and whom I’ve come for. He leads me to the window box seat and we watch a trolley go by. Gracie Slick and the Great Society is singing “Somebody to Love.” Bill holds my hand like he wants to play “This Little Piggy” and looks into my eyes and he’s fogging his bifocals with his dewy eyelashes. That’s when I know he’s telling me Wesley’s dead before he whispers the words.

“Mother? Come on now and chew, Mother. You can’t let that cake melt in your mouth and dribble out. Swallow, now. You’re right, Caroline. Your grandma is lonely. Very lonely since your granddaddy died last summer. But we’re here now. Mother?”

I feel paralyzed. I can’t move, speak. Can’t breathe or swallow. I don’t cry. I break Bill’s pretty plate glass window with my forehead and it gives me a crown of blood. Bill walks me over to the Sunoco station where he says he buried Wesley. It’s in the back, in a little fenced off dirt area by a propane tank. Wes OD’ed in Bill’s living room. What was I to do, says Bill? What day was that, I ask. Day after Christmas, he says, his eyes dripping again and he tries to snuffle up the snot. I punch him. The fuckin’ 26th. It’s Wesley’s birthday in three days. I’m overcome and have a manic episode. Yell and get hysterical. Choke on my own hair. Bill talks me down, tells me Wesley kept asking about me. Where’s Mona, he’d mumble, I need Mona. And that calms me some. Bill knows I was all the family Wes had.

“Mother’s drifting. All the excitement. Don’t cry, Caroline. Of course strokes make folks tired. I miss your granddaddy, too, darling. Don’t you wish Daddy were here, Mom? Caroline says she misses him.”

I remember the address of that Sunoco: 1910 Montrose Avenue. I commit it to memory in secret. And when I’m in the Bay Area on my honeymoon with Edward a year later, with itty-bitty Eve in my arms, I sneak out of our friends’ house and find wildflowers—snapdragons and tiger lilies—and sneak off to the Sunoco and lay them on his grave. Ed never knows or figures out. I want to tell Eve about her real dad, how she’s named after the day I found out he died, but never did get it out. Only months between Ed passing and me frozen here like a pterodactyl fossil.

“No, Tina. Not you boo-hooing, too. Grandma’s okay—see, she’s smiling. Mother, here, hold the spoon. Here. The spoon, Mother. No, your other hand. Put that hand down.”

So Bill makes a little cross from two old pieces of bamboo someone in the house was using for bongs, some twine, and those roach clips like little crocodile jaws. Year later it’s covered in mud and ragweed. Overgrown. Wes would like wild and overgrown, I suspect. He’d be proud to be buried back of the Sunoco. It’s just badass enough for him.

“No, no, she’s not waving at anyone, girls, she’s just dancing… kind of. Arms do crazy things after strokes. It’s her way of showing us she’s happy.”

Wesley visits at odd times. But it’s always got to do with twenty-six, like twenty-six days after the vernal equinox or twenty-six days after his baby girl’s birthday. He’s fierce in the summer and I understand his anger. I understand he is mad with himself. I know he wants me to come this time and I see the three forks ahead rising out of the mirage my mind has become. He’s waiting. I want to yell to him. But damn I can’t move my mouth. Due north, I want to scream. This time, due north.

John Francis Istel has performed as an actor, parked cars as a valet at a fancy NYC restaurant, written plays, taught college and high school English, bartended in Times Square, worked as an arts editor, written about theatre for The Atlantic, Elle, The Village Voice, American Theatre, and elsewhere. His poetry and fiction have appeared in such publications as New Letters, Weave, WordRiot, Soon Quarterly, Ginger Piglet, Linden Avenue Literary Journal, and Brooklyn Free Press.