We dance the way some people pray, like we’re winging a message to heaven. Our hands are raised to the sky, our shorts sliding off our hips. School is out for the weekend, we’ve remembered to bring home our lunchboxes, and we rove across the back porch, sealing ourselves against the future. Our feet, dusted in yellow, pick up the pollen on the floor, and the floor picks up the nuclear shadow of our footprints like we were incinerated on the spot.
These are the days when we still have time to be anything. Wearing our mother’s costume jewelry, breaking our necks with strands of fake sapphires and rubies that drip like veins down our stomachs, we’re movie stars? Everyday we fight over the one strand of real pearls, molar smooth with a golden clasp like a crab claw. We are our mother. We have her singing voice and dilutions of her curled in the clutch of our ovaries. We have her favorite station on, and someday we’ll have her age. But now we’re young. Now we’re spinning around while the man in the radio croons about a woman he loved who left him anyways.
We dance the way some people pray, a natural side effect of living in the arrhythmic heart of the Bible Belt, with Jesus palpitating around us. We live in the promised land of paper mills and two lane roads, the cracked asphalt withering into the gravel shoulder, the gravel shoulder littered with cigarette butts and wax wrappers still clinging to pickles and smears of ketchup and cheese. We live inside of an endless burning, twisting our hands in the sun. Our back porch is a diving board into the alchemical late afternoon glare that transmutes our hair into gold and blinds the drivers heading west on the freeway below. If any of them looked up, they’d see us dancing, but none of them do. We are above their notice; we are below their line of sight.
What a sight, all those cars below. Glittering like beetle shells, like the ones that gather dust on our windowsills, hard and chitinous and the violet color of something you can grind between your teeth. In their passing, we can hear snatches of their radios like gulps of air, like they’re surfacing from somewhere deep. Maybe some of the drivers dance too, in that seed hull of space behind the steering wheel. We’ll never know.
Our grandfather in his rust bitten blue truck doesn’t dance. He steers with one wrist, his other arm resting on the open window. He tips his hat at strangers, and he sings with a voice so deep we want to press our hands against his throat and gather up the sound, but he doesn’t dance. We don’t hear the gravel scrape of his tires or his closing car door, but we watch him appear as he always does around the side of the house, a denim clad cowboy with a belt buckle the size of an apple. To us, he is huge, a man of epic proportions. We don’t notice the sag of his jeans or the watch sliding down his wrist. We could fill up his boots with water and go swimming. We could use his hat as a tent and set up shop in a desert somewhere, shielded from the sun. When he lifts us onto his shoulders, we can sweep the whole world into our arms.
Look Grandpa, look, we spin for him. He turns up the music and swings us high into the air, so high that our feet tangle into clouds and we get caught on the way down, ripping through filaments of sky. We fall for years and land back in his arms, cradled there by bone and flesh. He smells of tobacco and gasoline. He smells like someone who exists. What would you say to a little road trip, he asks. Our answer is yes, yes, always yes.
We live in the Bible Belt, in the red clutch of God, and on our grandfather’s radio, sometimes, we hear about how we are evil sinners and how Hell is a very hot place. Today, though, it is another man singing about a broken heart as we fly down roads that curve like a question mark at the end of the sentence Where are we going? Seatbelts are optional in our grandfather’s car, and so is the speed limit, and we move and shake in the backseat as our grandfather in the front cracks open a bottle and glugs down what he tells us is root beer.
He grew up here as we are growing up here, another mammoth caught in the bog of this place, another life perfectly preserved so that the next generation can fish them out and find that nothing’s changed. We are our grandfather’s future, but also his past, just as our past is his, and our future the same. We don’t have time for these breathless calculations, though; we’re already breathless from dancing. As we move to the music, our necklaces tangle into tight fists that beat against our chests like they’re trying to resuscitate us. This is our daily ablution, anointing us with sweat. We are each other’s sacrament, the words to the song wafers on our lips.
He parks and leads us to a brick building that looks like one of the houses we drive by sometimes after church and imagine ourselves inside of, eating ice cream for every meal. But no one lives here, or if they do, it’s not for long, because inside, there are only empty boxes in the shapes of rounded rectangles, like the fender of a car. Some are wooden, some are metal. We rap our fists against them to hear the hollow sound they make. They’re so big you could lay down inside of them, and maybe you’re meant to because they’re cracked open like peanuts and cushioned inside with little pillows. Red velvet, white fleece. We run our hands along the lining, along the wood so glossy and smooth you could skate across it in your socks.
Our grandfather wants to know which one he should get and we want to know what for. To sleep in, he explains. Here, here, we pull at his hands, leading him to one that’s the same burnished brown of his belt with a deep tongue of blue on the inside, like crawling into the inky bottom of the sea. We try it out for him, nestled side by side with our eyes closed. He tells us to wait outside while he talks to the man running the store. Outside, there is no music, no sound at all but the white noise of here, the electric hum of our own blood running through the vessels of our ears.
This place is a part of us—the stands of pine trees as thin as our wrists, the red clay worn into the treads of our sneakers, the air brushing over our skin as we dance in the parking lot. It feathers out from us in black cables, like the knobs of the oak roots that ripple our driveway, that we go thumping over on metal scooters with foam hand grips. It’s there when we fall asleep, in the cicada hum and night breeze that quivers through the cracked open window, slipping into our dreams, making our hair smell like leaves. It’s there in the way we speak, dropping our R’s like children off at school, burnishing our words into a smooth lick of sound, like the curl of a smile or the black coil of a rat snake in the grass. It’s there in the water, in the things we don’t say and the ones we do, a virus we will never shake.
It’s a part of us, and it’s a part of our grandfather, too, coming back to us with a face we’ve never seen before, turning on the radio through the open window of the car, lifting us up and letting us twirl across the ballroom of the truck bed. We dance and dance and dance, our feet drumming against the floor as we spin the roulette wheel on happiness. The furthest we’ve been from here, and ever will be, is in these moments, wandering away from ourselves. Call now for the truth! A billboard by the highway shouts in letters a thousand feet high; but we’ve already found ours, twisting around in a helix of movement.
Our grandfather watches us, an equal part of our inheritance. On the highway, the cars fly by, rushing eagerly into the yawning horizon, hurtling over the edge of the world, sunlight sparkling off of their metal hides like gunshots. In the bed of the truck, we shake and sway, born anew, baptized in the dust to which we will return. Somewhere in the sky, God goes about his business. All of us are oblivious to each other’s existence.
We are not old enough to understand why our grandfather won’t dance with us, why he just wants to watch for song after song, as the air cools without getting cold and the sun sets without going away. We are not old enough to understand much of anything, but we will be someday. Until then, we dance the way some people pray, bodies taut with the wish of forgiveness.
We don’t know how much longer we have, or at what precise moment the song will screech to an end, or how the next breath will feel as it’s drawn through our lungs, but still we dance, having only, at this moment, begun.
Carson Markland is an undergraduate student at Wake Forest University working on his BA in English.