Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

Gathered in the Corners

BY NICHOLAS LEPRE

In her latest email, Kenna said she needed help. It was erratic and urgent like everything else about her. Muffled music shook Kenna’s car as Bailey pulled up beside her at the Warwick Mall. They both played like it was ordinary to see one another, ignoring the past, pretending it away. But within two minutes of sitting in Kenna’s car, it became clear that help meant money, and Bailey shot her down before they even exited the parking lot.

“I didn’t think you would,” Kenna said.

“I could have said ‘no’ in an email. I drove all this way for that?”

“No. Okay. I get it,” said Kenna, “but there’s something else. Something I want to show you.”

Bailey wanted to say that New London had suburbs too. And the money was a non-starter, anyway. She’d need every penny in her savings account for the house she planned to buy before winter.

They drove for ten minutes, then slowed in a neighborhood like all the others. The houses were farther apart, maybe, but basically the same. They weren’t what Bailey was looking for, but she considered the small facts that make up a home—the way the sunlight washes in through the windows of the bedrooms, the way a floorboard creaks underfoot—and wondered if she could live in a place like this.

They had emailed a handful of times since they first met four years earlier, but their conversations were terse—one email, one response every ten-or-so months—neither apologizing for their first meeting. Just the basics. She knew about Kenna’s band, and Kenna knew that Bailey lived with her mother and that they worked together at an insurance agency. Without prompting, Kenna said her band practiced five times a week, they were a serious band. It wasn’t just some fuck off.

“Okay,” said Bailey, but Kenna shook her head in frustration before continuing. They had played thirty shows over the last year. They were recording an EP in May and this huge band from North Carolina invited them on tour. That’s why she needed the five-thousand-dollar loan, for a van.

“That’s what you want? Five grand?” Bailey couldn’t imagine asking anyone for that kind of money, let alone for some band. “Why don’t you get a job and save up, like I did?”

“I did save up. I’m not asking you anymore. I shouldn’t have asked you. Okay? I’m sorry for asking you. You don’t have to be so condescending.”

“I’m being condescending to someone I’ve met once in my life who asked me for a shitload of money? How rude of me.”

“Yeah, it is rude,” Kenna said, “I apologized. I said I was sorry. I said forget it. What else do you want from me?” She was yelling, and Bailey couldn’t believe it. “And I’m not a stranger. I’m your sister.”

 “I don’t have a sister.”

“Okay,” Kenna said and sort of laughed, like it wasn’t a shitty thing to say.

Bailey felt stupid for the way she lost her temper. It happened a lot, if she was being honest with herself, and she always felt like an asshole afterwards, but she couldn’t stop it. It reminded her of a grayed-out checkbox in Majesco she couldn’t uncheck, even though she knew it was wrong and would mess up the claim.

Nothing more was said. Kenna drove through the town and they made their way up a long street with what felt like twenty stoplights. Every one of them was red. The houses were gray or white and almost none of them had American flags out front. She never wanted to live in a small town when she was younger, but when she thought of home now, she imagined a place kind of like this, where she could have a yard and a golden retriever and a basketball hoop for the children she realized she wanted. Kenna lit a cigarette. Bailey pulled at the ends of her long sleeves to cover her hands. She wouldn’t have stood up for herself the way Kenna did when she was twenty-three. She felt dumb standing up for herself now.

The first time they met, Kenna drove up to Boston unannounced and buzzed up to her dorm room and said some frantic nonsense. She sounded insane over the intercom, and Bailey’s roommate Tracey said not to let her in. Bailey didn’t have a sister, and even if she did, why would she just show up one Tuesday afternoon?

She tried reading Neil Postman for her media theory class while Tracey sat on the floral loveseat they found at the Allston Goodwill, flipping through cable channels on their Sansui, the soft snap of the signals reminding Bailey of popcorn, of eating it for dinner as a nine-year-old on the Thursdays her mother worked a double at Keegan’s, because it was the only thing she knew how to cook.

The intercom buzzed again and Bailey called down to the front desk and told them she didn’t know this person and could they please remove her from the building? But the front desk clerk was someone on work study who didn’t really care. He said yeah, sure, and she hung up the phone and sat back down on her bed.

Her mother kept no secrets. She was honest, for better or worse, and told Bailey everything. There was no secret child given up for adoption in her mother’s past. Only her deadbeat father. Sitting there, with Amusing Ourselves to Death in her lap, it occurred to her that there were truths her mother probably avoided, things Bailey had chosen not to consider herself. We don’t ask ourselves the questions we don’t want answers to. When she thought of him, she would picture her father as a swarm of wasps—a destructive force with a short lifespan. It was all bullshit of course, and the girl on the intercom was proof. Now she knew that her father went on and on in the world, finding new love along the way, living carelessly without her. He probably had other children he loved enough to keep.

 “Do you think she’s gone?”

“The intercom girl?” Tracey asked, pausing on a flaccid John Kerry stump speech on MSNBC, “Probably just a prank.”

“Yeah,” she said, but she could see everything so clearly that she knew it wasn’t, and twenty minutes later, she and Tracey heard a voice in the hallway pleading, “Bailey, open up if you’re on this floor.”

It was no surprise when Bailey peeked out the door and saw a skinny, white girl wandering the hallway, eyes searching, repeating herself with more and more desperation. She wore a navy-blue hoodie and a black t-shirt with pink and white crawfish all over it that said Blood Brothers, and in an instant, it was too late to sneak back inside and close her door and pretend she’d never heard her.

“Bailey?”

“Hi,” she said, and Kenna came running, a dumb smile on her face. She was shorter. Her reddish hair thinner and straighter than Bailey’s. Yet, for all the differences, anyone who saw them together would know they were related. Cousins if not sisters. She looked disheveled. Not strung out or tweaking; exhausted. A windless sail, in need of ironing.

“You’re my fucking sister,” she said, and punched Bailey in the shoulder.

 “Where the heck are we going?” Bailey asked. Heck was more playful than hell, because Kenna might still be on edge about the money. She didn’t want to bring it up again, because why bother? As soon as Kenna showed her whatever she wanted to show her, Bailey would drive back to New London and move on with her life. She could even stop at a couple of open houses in eastern Connecticut on her way home.

“I already said, there’s a place I want to show you,” said Kenna.

“What kind of place?”

“The kind of place where everything went wrong.”

“New London is back that way,” she said, with a forced laugh. She tried to think of things to say to get Kenna talking. She asked more about the band. What was their name again? Sinner? Spitter?

“Skitter,” Kenna said.

“Skitter. Cool. That’s a cool name,” she said. “What kind of music do you play?”

“Like punk.”

“Like Green Day?”

“More like Drive Like Jehu.”

“I don’t know them,” Bailey said.

Some of the front yards had trees, others were barren. There were fences, chain-linked and wooden blondes, dogs posted to leashes or roaming freely in the yards, children in blue and red and yellow shirts running and spitting at one another, and always gray roads beneath the Grand Am.

Kenna asked if she had ever been to Rhode Island before.

“My mother dates the basketball coach at U.R.I. Jerry.”

“I went there,” Kenna said, “U.R. High.”

“Small world.”

“Not really. Everyone goes there. Or RIC. Is it serious?”

“Yes.”

“She lives here?”

“Not yet. When I buy my place, she’ll move in with him.”

“I could never live with my mother again.”

“I didn’t think I could, either,” Bailey said. “Shit happens.”

The window crank on the passenger side was missing its spinning head, and in its place was a green gumball that popped off when Bailey rolled the window down to vent some of Kenna’s cigarette smoke. She tried to put the gumball back, but it wouldn’t stay in place. She held it up and Kenna reached over her and opened the glove compartment, which held a small sandwich bag full of fresh gumballs.

“What should I do with this one?” Bailey asked.

“Chew on it?”

“I don’t want it,” she said, and Kenna took it from her and threw it out the window.

“Ants will eat it,” Kenna said, and then, “what kind of shit?”

“What do you mean?”

“You said shit happens. What kind of shit?”

“I don’t think ants eat gum,” she said. Kenna sort of shrugged. “I lost my job and then I crashed with a friend until we hated one another.”

“That sucks,” said Kenna as she parked the car. They were in front of a house with a chain-link fence half-covered in tattered, green ribbons.

“I wanted to die because I loved suffering more than I loved myself.”

“You should have called me,” Kenna said.

“I’d only met you once,” Bailey said, “I wouldn’t burden you with my shit.”

“I would’ve listened.”

And they were back to where they were four years before; with Kenna needing things Bailey didn’t have, and giving things Bailey didn’t want.

“Is this your place?” she asked, unbuckling her blue seat belt. It was the first car she had ever ridden in where the seat belt came out of the door. She wondered how anyone in trouble ever got out alive.

It all came out in a fight with her mother, Kenna explained. Bailey shifted her weight from one foot to the other in the threshold of her dorm room. Powdered bleach and dry bile clung to the linoleum tile in the hallway. Remnants gathered in the corners. Tracey leaned in behind her, trying to listen. Kenna said she and her mother were yelling at one another about her band practicing in the basement, and Kenna said her mother was never home anyway and why did it matter, and Kenna’s mother said because it was her house and because when she was home, she deserved peace and quiet. Girls in other dorm rooms opened their doors to hear the commotion; some of them even stuck their dumb heads out into the hallway to watch. Bailey wanted to crawl into bed and hide, but Kenna just kept going, unembarrassed or oblivious. She said that her mother never came to any of her shows, never wanted her playing music, never fucking supported her, and Kenna’s mother screamed at her to go live with her father, then, and see how supportive he was, and Kenna said she just might even though she never, ever, ever would, but later that night, after a long drive around the pond in Coventry, she Googled her father anyway to see if he was still alive or whatever, and she couldn’t find him at all, no results that were really him. But she did find Bailey.

They still had the same last name. That was the weird thing, Kenna explained.

“I found your MySpace and I just knew,” she said. They all stood there, looking at one another, trying to figure it out.

“It’s like looking in a white mirror,” Bailey said, to break the tension. No one laughed. “My mom’s Puerto Rican,” she added.

“You’re prettier than me.”

She reminded Bailey of the ants in her mother’s apartment, crawling in circles, carrying nothing, following a plan or idea she would never understand.

“Are you okay?” Bailey asked.

“Yeah.” Kenna said. She said she was nineteen and her first band broke up because the drummer fell in love with her and then she graduated high school and she had just started playing with a few guys from another band, a shitty U.R.I. jam band, but they knew bass and drums and one of them liked Rancid, so that was a start, at least. She was a freshman in college. Her mother was a pain in the ass. Her favorite band was The Clash but really her favorite band was Bear vs. Shark. They were from Michigan and no one went to their shows and it was fine if Bailey had never heard of them. She hated their father. He was the biggest piece of shit in the world, and then she started shaking and looked like she was going to cry.

“I drove up here as soon as I found out,” she said, “it’s just a lot of—”

“You should’ve called first—”

“Do you want something to eat?” Tracey asked, “We’re going to dinner soon. You can use one of my guest meals.”

“I can use a guest meal,” Bailey said, “she’s my sister.”

“You’re out of guest meals,” Tracey said, “let’s sit down and talk.”

They got out of the car and stood in front of the fence, the sun partially obscured by strips of white cloud. The house was average in every way—two floors, a chimney, a rusted fence and a swinging gate, a window in each of the corners and a front door in the center, forming an emotionless face shape.

“I wish they’d leave the ribbons up. I know they don’t matter. The whole fence used to be full of them,” Kenna said, pointing to the ribbonless left side of the fence. “I know it doesn’t matter anymore—if it were my house, I’d leave them alone. It pisses me off, I guess.”

When she didn’t say anything in response, Kenna must have realized Bailey still had no idea where they were.

“This is where Francine Moss went missing,” she said.

“Who?”

“You’d know her if you saw her,” Kenna said, and then, “she was a big deal here.”

How would it feel to have your home violated? To fall in love with the rooms of a house, the smell of the air, the cracks in the ceiling, and the promise of the life you would live there, and have it taken away? Bailey used the toe of her sneaker to dig a stone out of the natural gutter where the grass and concrete met.

“What happened?” she asked.

“You don’t watch the news?”

“Not really.” She used her heel to kick the stone into the road.

“Nancy Grace talked about her all the time.”

“I don’t—”

“Neither did I, but we grew up together, so,” Kenna fished another cigarette out of her canvas bag, and lit it before she asked Bailey if she smoked.

“I quit,” Bailey said. “She was your friend?”

“I hated her,” she moved downwind. “We got into a fight at her birthday party and I said I wished she would disappear. Then a few weeks later, she did.”

“That’s,” said Bailey, “wow.” She wished that Kenna would have mentioned it the first time they met. Then she remembered the anger she felt that day, how she stood in the hallway with her arms crossed as Kenna spoke, like she was waiting for an apology.

“I’d search for her every day after school. I thought I would find her. I thought she’d forgive me. I blamed myself,” she said.

“Did they ever find her?”

“You really don’t watch the news,” Kenna said. “Two years ago. My ex-boyfriend found her. Imagine that bullshit. I nearly killed myself searching for her, and all he had to do was get drunk and stumble into the woods one night.”

Bailey asked if they should be standing there, if it was okay. There were no cars in the driveway but she still felt uncomfortable.  Kenna shrugged and kept going.

“I heard she still lives around here somewhere. I don’t know what I’d say if I saw her. I can’t. They caught the guy. They just waited at the shed until he showed up. Piece of shit hung himself with a bedsheet before the trial.”

She ran her hand through the top row of faded ribbons. She said she tied one of them, a few months after it happened, on this side of the fence.

“Mrs. Trotter took me. She lived next door,” she gestured to an unseen house, streets away, “I would go there after school. She would cook me these frozen chicken pot pies she couldn’t afford. I don’t think my mom even paid her. We’d go to Dave’s Market sometimes, and she’d ask what I wanted for dinner and I’d always pick out the same thing, and she’d say my name in such a kind way. She’d tell me no, and we’d do two laps around the tiny market, and she’d always buy them anyway. She didn’t have grandkids. She didn’t have anyone. And now I can’t look at chicken pot pie without feeling like the biggest asshole.” She crushed the dead cigarette under her foot and bent down to pick up the butt, “I still blame myself.”

“You were a kid. Kids say stupid things.”

“I know,” she said, “but that doesn’t make it go away.”

“Did you ever write a song about it?” Bailey asked.

“All of my songs are about it.”

Bailey said she’d like to hear them sometime, even though she was afraid she wouldn’t understand.

“Hang on,” Kenna said, and walked away to unlock the trunk. She came back to the front of the car with a white electric guitar strapped to her back.

They sat at a rectangular table in the dining hall, and Kenna dominated the conversation. She said she grew up in Rhode Island. When she failed to ask, Bailey interjected that she grew up in Connecticut. Kenna had a lot to say and was under the illusion that everyone wanted to hear it all.

She was still talking long after they had finished eating and the only things left on their plates and trays were balled-up napkins, pizza crusts, and the murky bottom of a cup of chicken tortilla soup. The most important thing to her was music. She wanted to have a band and tour. She didn’t care if she was poor; that was all that mattered, doing what she loved.

“That’s kind of stupid,” Bailey said, at last.

“What?” Kenna said.

“Being poor fucking blows.”

Kenna said she knew that. She wasn’t dumb. She was raised by a single mother, too.

“How do you know I was?” Bailey said, “You didn’t even ask.” No one said anything, and Tracey sort of puckered her lips, the way she did in Spanish class when she was called on and didn’t know how to respond. There was something presumptuous about Kenna being there that Bailey didn’t like. College was the first place she ever felt at home, comfortable being whoever she wanted to be, and a half-sister she never knew was already too much to process, without the embodiment of the idea being a self-centered nineteen-year-old.

“I don’t care about money,” Kenna said, “my mom cares about money and she works eighty hours a week and I never see her, and when I do, all we do is fight because I’m never there when she needs me or I’m not the daughter she has in her head and I never will be.” She kind of smirked at the end of her sentence, like she was proud of herself for getting it all out straight, like she had only recently learned the power of words and how to weaponize them in the war against all the forces that conspired to make her live an unhappy life. The smirk was too much for Bailey.

“Why are you here?” Bailey said.

“I wanted to meet you.”

“For what? What do you need from me?”

“I don’t—”

“Because if you need something, just ask for it. I’d give you advice, but you clearly don’t want that, because all you do is talk. You can’t just come here and take up my whole night and expect me to act like your shrink. You had a fight with your mom. Big fucking deal.”

“Bailey,” Tracey said.

“Everybody fights with their mom. That doesn’t make you special. You think your music makes you special, but it doesn’t. You’re still like everyone else.”

“Stop,” said Tracey.

“How would you feel if I just showed up at your school, acting like I meant anything to you? We’re blood and that’s it. Sorry. Maybe we could be something later, but that takes time. This,” she said, pointing from herself to Kenna, “this is nothing.”

Kenna had the lumpy look of someone fighting tears, and Bailey stood up and brought her dinner tray to the stainless steel carousel for the dishwashers in the back of the dining hall. She stood there and watched it disappear around the corner.

“You won’t really be able to hear the guitar, but—” Kenna leaned against the car and played a song where she kept saying the words “I never wanted you anyway.” Sometimes the chords changed quickly, and sometimes they stayed the same for a long time. She did this thing with her middle and ring fingers that sounded cool, even though Bailey could barely hear it over the passing cars and grasshopper chirp, and the dull airplane echo. She wondered if Kenna planned it this way, to play a song in front of the flapping ribbons, suspended like caged birds. Then she felt angry with herself for thinking that. What did it even matter? If she could stop being so hard on her, she could see Kenna for who she was. Annoying maybe, but young. Loyal. In search of the same things she wanted.

She certainly didn’t pick Kenna, but that hardly mattered. Kenna was hers now, and she needed to love her. The words in the song got louder as Kenna neared the ending. “Two or three times a day,” she kept singing. Her left hand wound up and down the neck of the guitar, and her right hand pounded out an elliptical rhythm. It was like she wanted to break the strings, the way she hammered her orange pick into them. When Kenna finished, Bailey felt something rabbit-sized jump out of her stomach, into her throat. She tried to hide it by pretending to sneeze, but that must have looked phony.

The wind moved the new leaves and filled the air with a gentle hiss. Like a kettle in the apartment two floors up. She wanted to give her something, to let her know they were more than strangers.

“I don’t know him either,” she said. “He would send me birthday cards, sometimes. Twenty bucks. He tried to pick me up at school once, when I was twelve. I knew it was him because of a picture my mother kept in her sock drawer of the three of us the day I was born. He said he had something to give me, and I told him to leave me alone. He was wearing a paisley shirt and jeans, and these thick glasses. I told him I hated him. He grabbed me by the wrist, and I kicked him in the balls as hard as I could. He called me a little bitch. And that was it. I got on the bus and went home. Other parents must have watched it happen, but no one did anything. No one stopped him. And that was the worst part about it. I never told my mom, and I never saw him again.”

“I still hate him.”

“I did too. But now?” Bailey poofed her hands in a way she instantly regretted. “It’s like the way you can’t remember a random Wednesday from five months ago. It doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. It’s just—over. Then eventually those Wednesdays become weeks and months, and years, if you live long enough. And then what does it even matter?”

“It always matters, because it happened. It never stops mattering.” Kenna was pissed. She opened the car door and tossed her guitar in the back seat and then slammed it closed.

She wasn’t being cruel. She didn’t mean to hurt her.

“That’s just how I feel,” Bailey said, “you don’t have to—I mean—”

“Why did you even agree to meet me?” Kenna asked, at last. “I said right in the email that I needed help. I wasn’t hiding anything.”

“I know.”

“Then you scream at me for asking for it, and then you have the nerve to tell me it doesn’t matter. That my life doesn’t matter? You’re the same as before.”

“That’s not what I was trying to say. I just meant, when you’re older, maybe, things don’t—it’s easier. You’ll have money. You’ll be better off.”

“That means dick to me right now,” Kenna said, “So thanks. Thanks for your sisterly wisdom.” She got in the car and Bailey stood outside it, halfway between the fence and the street.

“Get in. I’ll bring you back to your car.”

She had twenty-one grand in her savings account, and if she only put ten grand down, she could still buy a condo. Definitely not a house, but something. A start. Somewhere between New London and Kingston.

“Can I ask you a question?” Bailey said, sitting down beside her. “Why don’t you just get your mom to loan you the money?”

“I need to do this on my own.”

“My money is doing it on your own?”

“It’s different. I’ll pay you back. I’ll write up a contract, I’ll pay it back within two years, or you can have my three guitars. You can take my amplifier. You can take this car.”

“What if the van breaks down? Five thousand dollars sounds like a pretty crappy van.”

“The van costs $9,000,” Kenna said, “I saved up four grand already, working in a law office during the day and bringing onion rings to idiots every fucking night.”

It occurred to Bailey that she didn’t know about Kenna’s jobs, because she hadn’t asked. She hardly mentioned anything other than the band in her emails.

“You saved four grand in a year?” Bailey asked.

“Fifteen months. Since the band got serious.”

“Why don’t you get a loan?”

“I tried. I have shit credit.”

“I’ve dreamed of owning a home since—,” Bailey said, “my mother never owned a home, you know? I want a yard. I want a porch to sit on in the afternoon. I want a bathtub and dumb wallpaper and a sofa that will swallow me up on Sundays. I want to be comfortable.”

Kenna said she understood, but Bailey could tell she didn’t, and she wondered if everyone lives against something. The ways they’ve been wronged by the people who raised them, or the person who didn’t. The expectations that everyone has for them. Their financial circumstances. The unremarkable place they were born and will most likely die. The love they receive too late to handle.