T.O. Connor

The guts of the fire burn green. A screech owl screams like a baby. The far-away hills have gone to mountain laurel, but here it is only trees. We — my husband and I, his two friends from high school — are drinking hard lemonade and hooch, shutting out the rest of the world for no good reason really. For nothing.

Emilia has big tits, skinny legs, a flat ass. Her jeans ride so low on her hips, I think I want to fuck her even though I’m squeamish when it comes to girl-on-girl. She says cunt way too often, which is disturbing. Only ugly women should be crude.

Her boyfriend, Tony, is vaguely Italian. Like bologna. I get it now, what baloney means. He wants to make it big without making an effort, that’s how many tattoos he has. If you met him on a street in Pittsburgh, where he lives, you would be afraid. Pittsburgh is not at all like this place, he says, because he needs us to believe that he’s important. Mostly, he needs Emilia to believe that she is not. Tony lights up another cigarette as if he’s the only one of us who knows how.

The old woods here in Venango County are still ripe with oil, reeking with it, even though the Native Americans are long gone and so is the oil.

I am uncomfortable with these people. I mean these people in the prejudice way — which is like a blister, that kind of secret. These are my husband’s friends. Not his friends, exactly, but similar in the way that everyone from the same high school is pretty much the same. He is like them, except not, which is what I want to believe and not that I am the one changing.

When he says I love you, it’s the kind of luck I think life owes me.

Everything here gets eaten up by the earth. Literally, I mean, in the way literally used to mean. Sometimes I dream that I am drowning. There is a forest where a whole city used to be. It’s somewhere around here, but that could mean anywhere.

“Cuntfucker,” Emilia says. Her name is too much name for the T-shirt she’s wearing. I could teach her a few things. It doesn’t bother Tony at all. How ugly it is to know you’re poor when you don’t want to believe it. I want to slip my tongue between her lips. I want to punch her. Both things turn me on a little. There’s no reason for any of it except that my father is a very controlling man.

My husband is very drunk. His eyeballs quiver, and he can’t look at me straight on. He likes to feel this way because then everything is not something he has to hold in his hands. Everything is not a bird fallen from its nest. Everything is not his fault. He’s probably an alcoholic like his father, which neither one of us can say out loud. It’s not such a bad thing to be an alcoholic, necessarily, but it’s the only thing he’s really scared of, and I am really only scared of him being scared.

The lemonade burns when you drink too much. I don’t like being drunk as much as I like getting there. Tony’s shorts are intentionally too big, like the gold chain around his neck. Sometimes I count up all my mistakes, even the ones I haven’t made yet.

“This house is haunted,” Emilia says, though I’m not even sure where we are or which house she means. I don’t believe in anything past the trees. I couldn’t drive us home if I wanted to. It’s a reason to keep drinking.

“It’s true,” Tony says. He appears to be good natured but is a selfish asshole in bed, I bet.

I believe in ghosts because there’s no good reason why I should or should not. Like God. Except I would rather believe in things other people do not. When I go back to Utah, for example, I believe in global warming. My father thinks slavery is a thing of the past. Everyone is responsible for themselves but not for anyone else, is what he means. I would never say he’s selfish. Most people, even Emilia and Tony who fuck but don’t touch, would throw it back in my face.

“How is it haunted?” I ask. I would like to see a ghost even more than I care to see God.

My husband rubs my thigh with his thumb. It’s not so much about sex as it is about hope. I never smoked a cigarette before I met him. “Hear the peep frogs?” he asks, but I can’t tell which buzz is the frog and which is the cicada. The fire reaches higher to find the oxygen. The weight of so many green and living things is more than I can stand.

“One day when Lou got home”—Emilia motions at Tony for a cigarette—“he heard a voice on the porch, but my mother was still at work.”

I hold a swallow of lemonade in my mouth until it gets so warm I can’t tell the difference.

“Whore,” Tony says. My first week in Pennsylvania, my husband knew everyone in the arrest column. Sometimes I think I might be slumming it rather than actually being in love. It’s a distinction that probably doesn’t matter.

Smoke slips from Emilia’s lips. There’s something magical about getting drunk in the woods with people you don’t like all that much.

“Used to be a whorehouse right where we’re sitting,” she says.

There are miles of rusted pipeline running the woods. Trees growing up through rotted-out oil barrels. Kudzu, which doesn’t belong here either, eating up what’s left of the wells. Nothing of history but its bones. A man bought a mansion in Oil City. There were fourteen dead cats in the walls. The mansion cost $250. I didn’t believe my husband when he told me this. Not about the cats, but what it said about the people.

I expect Tony to make some kind of innuendo. I don’t want to fuck him, but I want him to want to fuck me.

“Oilmen rode down the Allegheny from Titusville.” Tony points to the black nothing behind us, the trees so thick there’s no space between them to make any one of them real. “Then canoed across.”

“Sometimes when my mother is alone,” Emilia says, “she hears the whores talking.”

“Does it scare her?” I ask. It’s seems right to be afraid of the right kinds of things. I am scared of what is gone, of all the things I can’t go back to but also can’t forget.

Emilia shrugs and drags hard on her cigarette. It’s like a woman with tattoos. Sometimes she’s really fucking hot; other times I’m slightly repulsed. I don’t like to smoke in public. It’s a sin I’m not prepared to admit.

“Once, I saw them on the screen porch out front.”

“Who?” says my husband. Maybe it should annoy me, but he’s just so goddamn helpless.

“The whores,” she says. “Walking up and back.” Emilia sweeps her hand out in front of her, blinking out her face long enough to give me a chill. “Big fucking dresses and big fucking hair.”

My husband totters on the log next to me, off-kilter. I always need to be right.

Tony uncorks the hooch, pours it into the cup pinched between his knees. It’s strangely sexual. “I would like to see them.” He seems to be talking to no one. He takes a deep swallow then falls off his log, waving his hand like people drowning in old movies.

“I watched the whores from the kitchen,” Emilia says. She takes her hair in her hands. Her T-shirt lifts away from the waistband of her jeans. Someday, she will be thick around the middle, but her legs will be like sticks. She is already older than her age, bottle-blond and leathered.

“Did you talk to them?” I ask. I have seen the devil once, I think. He walked in to the kitchen while I was making a sandwich. He was silent, but then again, so was I.

“Some of them were dancing. Some of them were talking.”

“What were they saying?” Suddenly this means everything to me. I can’t explain why.

My husband lays his head on my shoulder. I want to wrap him up in my arms. I never want to leave this place, but I want to go home. A bat swoops in close to the fire and then away.

“It’s like I was the intruder,” Emilia says. “Like I was the one who didn’t belong.” She tosses her hair, and I swear she might be crying. Emilia hands me her cigarette. I pull on it slow, holding the smoke deep in my lungs where it can do the most damage.

T.O. Connor is the author of Recipes for Endangered Species (Tarpaulin Sky Press) and has published fiction, non-fiction and poetry in many places including Superstition Review, Mid-American Review, PANK, and Versal. She teaches writing at University of Rio Grande/Rio Grande Community College, and — though she grew up all over the West — she now lives and has found home in Athens, OH, in the foothills of the Appalachians.