Late last spring, early last summer, I published a novel about a woman on the verge of divorce and a young man on the verge of falling in love for the first time. Seriously, deeply in love. Told in dual POV, The Moonflowers was written using my own personal childhood memories, and also pure, fantastical fiction. The real memories are from my mother and father’s torrid marriage, which ended the day she threatened to kill him with a piece of broken glass. As a child, my father’s departure was an open door. I could move around the house, eat, play, do whatever I wanted without fear of a whipping. The day he left was the best day of my life. My sister, however, felt differently. She looked at his departure as a blemish against the family. Now we were broken, and being broken was shameful. I mirror this scene in an early section of the novel. Jane, after an evening of stifling heat and accusations from brutish husband Grant, loses whatever thread that’s been keeping her together. She grabs a steak knife from the kitchen sink and waves it in his face. “Get out!”
Almost fourteen-year-old Keith Day jumps on his bike and follows his father’s Chrysler through town. He hates his father, he loves his father. He knows it’s time for a change, but it’s so difficult for a son to accept. Your dad, as horrible and bullish as he sometimes is, is the pillar of your existence. I really felt for Keith; his devastation and acceptance of fate was truly heartbreaking. The following is one of my favorite chapters from the book, as it shows Keith post-chase on a solemn ride through the dusty streets of small-town Stultz.
Keith walked his bike along the road. He walked far past the Stultz water tower to where the houses had acres of space between them and the lights of town faded. He watched the moon and the telephone poles. Toads made strange sounds from the ditches. Farmhouses were geometrical shadows on the hillside. He didn’t cry, he just walked. He thought how the people inside those farmhouses were dumb, happy people, and he wasn’t. He was painfully aware of everything, and he wished he could cut off his head and throw it into a field and never have to think again.
As he walked, he took stock of little things. Like gravel and beer tabs and broken glass. He even saw a used condom someone had thrown out a car window. It was all limp and seeping. It made him want to barf.
Then he followed the railroad tracks, even though it would lead to town and he wasn’t ready to go back there yet. Sure, eventually, but right now he didn’t want to exist in that town, or anywhere, and he didn’t want to face his mother, who had done the right thing, but at the wrong time. That’s what made him so mad, why couldn’t she just have waited a little?
A car approached and slowed. It was a boat of a car. A huge Dodge. A pair of teenage boys rolled their windows down and peered out. “We almost didn’t see you. We could have hit you.”
“Like I’d care.”
“I said, I don’t care. Hit me.”
The boys laughed. One of them fumbled with a beer can before taking a large swig. Keith smelled marijuana and other sorts of things. The music they had on was piss music, the kind people liked when they didn’t have any taste.
“You want a beer?” one of them asked. It was a boy with acne so bad they’d already left pocks. The boy blinked and sniffed hard.
“Sure.” Keith held a hand out. A beer would be harmless. He’d had a few before. It would numb things and maybe he’d be happy. It would be good to be happy.
But the boys laughed and sped off without giving him the beer. Keith raised a middle finger to their taillights, and had to breathe gravel dust for a whole minute after they’d left. Some people were real assholes. They were born that way and would never change. You could always tell an asshole. They didn’t have any warmth in them; their eyes were strange. They did things to make other people feel stupid. They actually enjoyed it. That’s what made them assholes. They enjoyed it.
“Fuck you forever,” he said.
It was hot enough to have a beer and it would count as survival, not just getting buzzed. He wondered how those guys managed to buy it, when they weren’t much older than him. Some people had a gift for getting by with everything. He couldn’t even walk down the road without getting screwed by some form of the human race.
Before long he was in town again. No train had come or gone during his walk. If so, maybe he would have jumped in and let it take him away. He tried not to think about rapers inside the train cars, but they most likely existed. They were always in his mind, keeping him from doing wild shit. But the train hadn’t shown. No trains, and no rapers.
He walked by the park. It was empty. He used to play there with his friend, Louis, but Louis’s family had moved to Kentucky. That was fourth grade. He wondered what Louis was doing now, if he still had all those baseball cards and the picture of a naked Sophia Loren. Louis had written Keith in fifth grade, every week, and then every month the first half of sixth grade, and then nothing. Keith thought it was stupid to write letters anyway. There wasn’t anything to say. Louis had listed a lot of things, like, what he was doing in school, and how he’d gotten a new cat. It was all boring and useless crap that made Keith miss him. When the letters stopped, it had been a relief. But then when they never came again, he felt it was because Louis had never liked him in the first place.
A car turned off Jefferson Street and began to chase Keith down. A big-ass Lincoln. The person behind the wheel beeped in a staccato rhythm, and then pulled up beside him with a swerve that almost knocked the bike handles out of his hands. Keith recognized the people inside, and he knew the car too. Suzanne Brandenburg leaned over her husband Sasha to speak out the window. Her breasts were peach Jell-o molds barely held in by a black nightie. “Your mother’s worried about you.”
“She is?” Good.
“Get in,” Suzanne said. “We’ll take you home. You can throw your bike in the trunk.”
Keith saw Sally Brandenburg staring at him through the back window. Her hair was kind of messy and her brother Danny was next to her upside down in nothing but Spiderman underwear. Keith didn’t want to get in the backseat with those two. And he didn’t want to go home.
“Tell Mom I’ll be there in a while.”
Suzanne laughed. “You can tell her yourself. I’m not going to call her now, it’s midnight.”
He straddled the bike and rode around the Lincoln a few times. The eyes of the people inside followed him surreptitiously with every pass. Soon Suzanne lit up a Marlboro and hung an arm out the window to flick the ash. “Come on, get in. You can stay at our house if you want, but you can’t stay out here.”
Sally watched with those big eyes of hers from the backseat. Like a real weirdo. When he did a pop wheelie to scare her, he fell to the ground and heard laughing inside the car. This is when he would die. It had all ended—his life and everything. What was the use?
“Hey, get up, kid,” Sasha said. The behemoth hopped out of the car and helped Keith up, even though they both knew Keith was okay. Then Sasha grabbed the bike and shoved it into the trunk next to some tools, and Keith slid in next to the Brandenburg brats. He’d given up fighting. They drove across a quiet Stultz that could be a graveyard if there weren’t houses instead of headstones. The radio was off. The only sound in the car was Suzanne sucking on her cigarette.
Inside the house, which was cold and dark and clean, Danny said they could have a sleepover and watch cartoons and eat Cheetos. But Suzanne said Keith needed to be alone, and it was time for bed anyway.
“You can sleep in the den. Is that all right?” Everyone else had gone upstairs.
Keith shrugged. “I don’t care.”
She went to a closet down the hall and Keith heard a door open and close, and then she was back with a pair of sheets, a pillow and a light blanket. “I’m going to call your mom anyway, even though it’s late. She’s worried about you.”
Keith grabbed the blankets. The couch he was supposed to sleep on was ugly and it smelled like chemicals. Now he wished he was home, and not at the Brandenburg’s, but it was too late. Something heavy settled inside of him like tar. He couldn’t breathe. As he lay in the darkness, he heard Suzanne in the kitchen, and he knew she was speaking to his mom.
That made him sad and he tried not to think about it.
Keith pretended to be asleep when Suzanne came to stand in the doorway. She watched him for a long time and he wondered why. What had his mother said?
“Keith,” she said, in a soft voice. “I know how you feel. I had the same thing happen to me when I was your age. Do you want to stay up and talk?”
“No.” He rolled over, away from her. But even then she didn’t get the hint. His throat still burned so bad he could hardly swallow.
Why don’t you go away?
She finally did. She went upstairs and a door closed. Then it was so quiet you could hear the air conditioning come off and on.