Rock and Bone

It’s the week leading up to the Sturgis motorcycle rally, she’s been told, and all the way across Interstate 80, Kim’s seen the evidence: Harley-Davidsons and their riders, mostly in groups of two or four, peppering the highway and the rest stops. Stopping for gasoline is an eardrum-splitting affair, their open pipes calling brash and loud to each other while her car makes as little noise as a cat. Sometimes she feels their eyes on her, and it’s friendlier than she expects. Better, she thinks, easing another 24 cents of 93-grade into her tank, than the way the full-sized pickup drivers look quite literally down at her. But it’s all jokes about horsepower told with wide, tobacco-smudged grins, and she doesn’t mind so much. No one has made a comment about her ass since a diner in Illinois, at least not where she could hear, and she thinks the attitudes changed completely at the Nebraska border where she stops to use the restroom at a gas station.

The proprietor—he has to be, his cheeks the same, weathered yellow-tan as the walls, all of a color with the group of old men kibitzing on the one open bit of linoleum—points her toward the bathroom before she even asks. “Under the deer head,” he says, and there it is, beneath the cape-mount of a burly whitetail, a single-toilet bathroom. There are sunflowers painted on the back of the door, not well, but enthusiastically, and they match the peeling border around the walls’ top edge. Kim wonders, as she washes her hands, where the painter is. Is it the owner’s wife? She can’t picture him with a brush in his hands. She buys a coffee because she doesn’t need gas yet, might be making a point in the land of semis and extended cabs and full-sized beds, and the owner says he’s heard some of them foreign cars are good little cars, but he wouldn’t want one himself. “But that’s my own idea. I suppose it gets you around just fine,” he says. And she nods, smiling. The coffee is a little burnt but good enough for all that.

A day later, Kim thinks that the biker parked beside her at the Chugwater rest area might say something similar. He, unlike so many of the others she’s seen, appears to be making his trip solo on a bike that seems small and bare to her. Most of the riders have wide, hard-topped panniers or gear strapped down tight in the space for a second rider, or they tow small trailers that hold coolers and backpackers’ tents. This man has a sleeping bag and two slim leather saddlebags and nothing more. She sits in her car with her map of Wyoming, calculating the distance again. New York to Oregon. Always approaching, never arriving. Out of the corner of her eye, she watches him, though, and loses track of the mileage.

He looks like Hulk Hogan, maybe, if the Hulk never did steroids and wasn’t California-blond. If the Hulk never had a reality television program and might have been someone’s grandfather. Because this man is easily of a grandfatherly age, surely close to sixty, an aging kind of muscular going soft in the middle, with a gray ponytail and a thick, drooping mustache. Maybe he’s not even going to Sturgis, is a local, and that’s why he’s got so little with him. But he’s wearing a Sturgis t-shirt, long-faded blue, and he, too, has a map. He catches her looking at him, and he grins, folds his map up crisply, and tucks it into his back pocket. Kim ducks her head, embarrassed, and thinks instead of the land ahead of her, the fossil and bone and black liquid remains fermented deep in Wyoming’s oilfields.

She is driving to Portland for no reason in particular, only to fulfill an open-ended invitation from Jill, one of her old college roommates. They haven’t seen each other since Jill’s wedding, and Kim is apprehensive about the stay. Jill now has an eight-month-old, and she is not working. Kim is only using her vacation because it expires in six days, and she’s never done this before, crossing the whole country by trickling across the states’ seams. She has traveled in the West, of course—has seen concerts and drunk coffee in Seattle, skied in Boulder, toured Alcatraz and the Alamo—but she has never touched down in Wyoming.

She knows that Yellowstone is here, and her map is marked to stop there on her way back because she is certain that she will leave Jill’s house before she means to. There are geysers and gray wolves and sulfurous springs; yes, she will spend days there on her drive home. But what is there here, on this long, dry stretch of I-25? She gets back out of her car, goes into the rock-studded rest area proper, and looks into the rack of brochures. There are dozens of them, mostly for ranches and trail rides, but there are those, too, for Fort Caspar in Casper, and for the Wyoming Dinosaur Center in Thermopolis. She used to be dinosaur-mad, when she was ten and had wanted to be a paleontologist. The career urge had passed, and she had chosen accounting over archaeology, but she did go on a dig, once. She’d needed another elective, and the Anthropology department had scheduled a trip to Crete. There hadn’t been any dinosaur bones in Crete, but there had been a small village, and they—not her, she hadn’t found anything under her tentative brush but ordinary rock—had unearthed fragments of bone and broken pots. Kim had been relieved at the time; she didn’t think she wanted to touch anything that had belonged so closely to someone else. It couldn’t have been sanitary, anyway.

In the end, she was glad she had gone—for many reasons, one of them being their liaison to the local museum, a curly-haired young man with eyes the color of grape leaves. But Philippos hadn’t been all; she had liked watching even the ordinary rock she found skimmed clean of layers of dust, the way the curve or jut unveiled itself so slowly. Kim returns to her car and looks at her map. She should have stayed on I-80, but, at Cheyenne, she decided she was desperately sick of it, and her maps tell her that she can get back to I-80 and the economical route from Pocatello, Idaho. This is an adventure, and Jill knows she is sightseeing along the way, said Kim could show up any time in the next week. Kim digs a pen out of her purse and circles Thermopolis, once, twice, and then until there’s a smudging black ring around the whole town, over the small, spidering roads she will need to find to get back to the highway, where the land bulges and heaves tectonic. There are echoes of her old Geology class in everything she sees in this state: thin, tinny voiceovers that sound like radio in another room.

Her past often feels like that: something watched or read or observed, rather than anything she’s actually done. Kim doesn’t exactly know why. She writes down her mileage and puts the receipt from her gasoline fill-up in her purse. That detail feels real. She is averaging nearly forty miles to the gallon, taking advantage of gravity on the long, slow slopes down from each of the rolling rises. The motorcycles all along her trek west have blown by her at seventy, eighty, most crowned with flapping hair and no helmet. It makes her stomach churn to think about an accident like that. More, even, than when she thinks about her own small car and the towering cabs of semi-trucks, the wind-wavered trailers they tow behind. The car has airbags, but she is not foolish enough to think that means anything against a flatbed full of steel.

She considers getting out of the car again to refill her water bottle. Wyoming water tastes good right out of the ground, no chlorine aftertaste to pinch the back of her throat. She has her hand on the door handle when the motorcycle beside her thrums into life, and somehow that changes her mind. She puts her hand on the key in the ignition instead, and, when the car makes its four-cylinder purr, the biker grins wide at her again. He backs the bike out carefully, looking left and right and not simply relying on the small, circular mirrors and someone else’s attention. She follows, wondering which way he will turn: left to take I-25 back toward Cheyenne, right toward Douglas and Casper, or straight into the short promise of Chugwater, perhaps to try the famous chili the signs have advertised for miles.

They both turn, yes, right toward Douglas and Casper and Thermopolis and Sturgis and everything west, and Kim is grateful for the rare cloud cover that shades the road. The sun has been difficult to negotiate on this trip, wearing on her eyes even through her sunglasses, but now she clips them on her visor and relishes the shade.

The biker dallies a bit, his speed below fifty, and she signals, edges to the left and passes him, slowly. It is possible he prefers not to have traffic on his tail, she supposes, and when she passes, she sees that he is putting something in his pocket. Ah. She signals and puts herself back in the right lane, a hundred yards ahead of him because she doesn’t want to cut it too close. They drive, the sky flattening to a late-afternoon gray that blackens at the edges. Kim glances at the radio clock, and it’s only six, far too early for this kind of dark, and she wonders if it will storm. All the way through Nebraska, she saw clouds like that on the left and right of her, skirting I-80, but she didn’t get more than a few drops of rain on her windshield. Even the wind seemed to play favorites, blowing the stands of cottonwoods along the Platte but not freshening the air at her open windows. The blue motorcycle coasts past her, effortlessly, and she is watching the rider, smiling because he waves as he passes again, when the weather breaks. It takes only moments to turn savage.

The raindrops explode on the windshield, slanting hard into the glass as if thrown from the roadside. She can see the clouds’ black wool above, but the rain comes from everywhere. The wind bends the grass and then she can’t even see that for the sheeting water. All thought sticks her hands to the wheel where the wind fights her, and the single red eye of the biker’s taillight whisks right, toward the only guardrail she’s seen for miles. Here, the interstate drops away toward the Glendo Reservoir. Here, the rock is bare and starkly white under the road, even in the rain’s dark, where it is visible, before it cuts down so sharply that even a car’s height makes the grade of the cliff disappear. The taillight slips and falls, and Kim watches the bike shear sideways, wind-caught and water-rushed. It knifes under the guardrail and is gone. Her car is past the spot before it registers, and the Corolla hydroplanes through her braking until the shoulder’s gravel catches her.

She leaves the car door open because the wind won’t let her close it and because there is no time. She darts toward the wide slide-mark where there are chunks of leather fringe caught for a moment, and then they wash away, gone to wherever her breath is, too. She is afraid to look over the edge. She dials her phone in the shelter of a cupped hand, but the signal has wandered, lost in the space and electricity. She thumbs redial. 9-1-1. Redial. No one picks up yet, and when she looks over the edge, she sees the bike atop the man, the red rivers running, and she is certain it doesn’t matter. Her phone gurgles and spits until the screen goes black, and then she swings her leg over the metal rail. It hasn’t even bent, and it would be easier to slip under it, follow the motorcycle’s trench beneath the gray strip, but she can’t. She edges down the wet rocks as carefully as she can. Still, she thinks her pace is glacial, and she should hurry, but all she can think is that she doesn’t want to be lying with him, still, broken, washed.

Kim knows she is useless. She was useless to this man before she even leaves her car, she thinks, but even if his lungs still have lift, she would be useless. She has no medical training, and a wary corner says she should touch nothing, but instinct says she must move the motorcycle. It covers the man’s legs, a slowly spinning tire rubbing blackly on his elbow. She doesn’t know what to grip, knows she cannot lift it, and so she braces her heels in one rocky crack and pushes. Her hands slip, and the exhaust pipe is still hot. There is no burn, but she yanks her hands back, and the motorcycle teeters a moment on the biker’s hip before gravity and the wind bear it down. The metal crunches and she smells gasoline, the scent swimming into its own dilution down the cliff.

She clings to the rock because there is nothing else to hold onto except the body. She doesn’t want to touch it, but she should. Someone should. She puts one hand on his chest, still warm, and now she sees that his eyes are open, muddy green like the air. Water runs over them—whole drops landing where the red is in his eyes, filling the whites, something broken behind them and not bleeding out. His ponytail is red, too, plastered against his jaw, and she smoothes it away as best she can, wiping the strands back from his forehead, and then the hair is gone. Her hand hits warmth and softness, and she does not want to look. Does not want to, but must. The top of his skull is gone, sheared off by the guardrail’s edge, and the rain pelts the red-gray mass. Kim feels her stomach churn, but the wind whips her past any ability to gag. Instead, she cups her hands over the ugliness, tries to shelter the fragile tissue.

The balance is precarious, and her thigh touches the man’s side. The flesh gives in ways it shouldn’t, but he is still warm. Somehow, he is warm without pumping blood, and she is chilled to the bone with her moving, her seeing, her feeling. She inches closer, knows she is a leech, and she tries to cover his face, too.

Without animation, he looks nothing like he did at the Chugwater rest stop. There is no kindness in the dead face, the skin peeled up across the cheekbone—the, she thinks, not his—showing white bone. The constant wash irrigates, cools, cleanses. She thinks of looking closer, of lifting the flesh to see the greater structural curve. She touches his cheek, and the unsteady weight of her finger makes the flesh gape. Now the bile rises, sours her mouth, and that, too, sweeps down the cliff.

She curls her hands under her own arms. She cannot touch him again, but she is touching him, her knees against his torso, and she cannot give up those two points of heat. She jabs instead at the silent phone and thinks of crying, but there is too much water already. So Kim waits, and the rain never lessens, but the wailing of an ambulance comes, in time. By then, the man is all cold, Kim’s knees, too, and she is shaking, and there is no more blood in the run-off.

 

Kim sits, wrapped in a blanket, in her own wet car when the ambulance drives off, quiet and unlit. The rain tapers off, breaks of thin blue to the west, and she steps out into it, the blanket clutched around her. They said that she didn’t have to stay. There would be a tow truck coming when the weather eased, to lift the broken bike out of its rocky pinch. She told the paramedics that she pushed the bike down farther, that she made it break, and, when the police arrived, she told them, too. A man and a woman, they both said not to worry. An injury like that—moving the bike made no difference, and it wasn’t more totaled than it would have been from the first fall. They said she was brave to climb down and sit with him. Real decent of her.

All she can think of now is his injury. The paramedics wrapped his skull with gauze, to keep as much of him inside his own bone shell as possible, so that the fleshy coral that held his synapses and neurons, his memories and instincts, would stay. But half of them were missing. A shallow bowl—the top of his head—was gone. The thought twists in her stomach: it was gone, and not recovered. The paramedics didn’t bind on that bit of bone. They couldn’t find it.

Kim wraps the blanket closer and looks at the guardrail. The rain has long washed away any trace of blood or hair, but she searches the ground. The paramedics looked, but only briefly. They weren’t trained to look for remnants, not when finding pieces wouldn’t help anymore. Kim was, though. That summer in Crete had taught her what exposed bone looked like, but this was not the same as that. The class had combed dry, white dirt, and the bone was the same color. Philippos said the best field people could hear the bones, could scent the history in the ground. Kim remembers rolling her eyes and then trying even harder to avoid touching anything that the group had found. Now she bends close and tries to listen. All she can hear is the dripping of water, a distant train, and a single tractor-trailer in the east-bound lane.

She sleeps much better than she thinks she should. Her sleep is dreamless, and the hours of it stretch out long past noon. Once she wakes, she wants a shower. She couldn’t bear to take one last night, couldn’t stand the thought of more water, of the pelting feeling, but her skin itches now. She picks at a hangnail, the heel of her hand. The rocks had brushed her palms red and tender, but the skin is whole—nothing like the open gashes on the biker’s face. Not the biker. Gregory Collander. He had a name. His middle initial was R. He was from Nebraska. She’d held his driver’s license because both of the paramedics had needed both hands for a moment, and they handed her his open wallet. The folded leather was soaked through, and the chain had torn from its loop even though the wallet somehow stayed lodged in the blue jeans’ pocket. Gregory. She doesn’t want to think of his name. She doesn’t want to think of him at all. She crunches the small plastic bottle of shampoo between her fingers until the sides cave together and the plastic buckles, until all but the clear golden dregs remain clinging in its bottom. Too much shampoo, but her hair swallows it, her hands kneading thick white foam.

Her brain reverses: the blue motorcycle pulls forward into the spot beside her car, and it parks. Yes, it had parked next to her. She watched, and she knows how this part goes. Her map still holds the black circles around Thermopolis, and, for a moment, she thinks she’ll still go. She’ll shave her legs, she’ll rinse, she’ll dry. She’ll get into her car and follow Route 20/26 to the museum. She straightens her leg in front of her, out of the spray, and drags her razor, but her hands are unsteady and the pink plastic slips. The blood wells and trickles slow.

She stands in the shower until the water starts to run cold. Her phone is dead, and that is what she should do today: replace it. There is certainly a store in the mall that can do that for her, a place she can go to be handed the exact same make, the same model. They might even be able to restore the phone numbers in it if the little chip isn’t damaged. She should do that, should call Jill and tell her what happened. Even if that doesn’t change anything, Jill is the kind of person who would like to know.

But she can’t even let go of the soap right now, the thick white glue of it filling the undersides of her fingernails. She can’t let go, but she has to. The water is cold. Her nicked knee is bleeding again, and, when she dries, she blots the cut instead with toilet paper. In the end, she tears off a small square and lets it stick, the way her father did when he shaved and nicked his chin. After the blood dried, he soaked it off with a wet washcloth, and his cut didn’t bleed anymore.

She doesn’t remember the point yesterday when the man—when Gregory—stopped bleeding. There was blood when he fell, but nothing continued to gush. She knows, intellectually, that corpses cannot gush because there is no motion of the heart to propel the blood forward. There was some, though, and she wonders about that. Was it just what came to the surface? Or had the man known what happened to him? What if he had been alive, processing, fragmenting, stuttering through the rain-fall without the gray matter that would make that processing work? She doesn’t know if that is even possible. Chickens run headless, and snakes writhe in nervous memory while their fanged faces lie a foot from their coils. But people.

She sits on the closed toilet seat and grits her fingers in her hair. She presses into the flat curve of her skull, presses hard, but the feeling stays on the outside of her scalp. There is no way for her to touch what lives inside. Her fingers flatten into follicles, and they remember that split second of the biker’s brain, the softness and give. She breathes in, and lessens the pressure, and closes her eyes. The fluorescent vanity light keeps the backs of her eyelids yellow-orange in their blackness, and that color is fine. It isn’t blue or white or gray or red. There is no texture on her body to mimic what she felt for a fleeting moment. But her hair—her hair is wet and it smoothes back from her forehead, it tucks behind her ears. She brushes the strands back and back and back, but always the dense curve of her skull meets her fingers.

She spits into the sink without any color at all. She leaves her silent phone on the dresser.

The miles to Douglas pass quickly, the light golden white and intense enough that she keeps her eyes on the road and does not cast them out toward the silvered sage along the highway. It’s too pale to look. Miles later, when the white rock near the reservoir comes into view, she pulls the visor down. The sun is tending toward her back, the hour firmly afternoon, and the geology is blinding. She stays in the left-hand lane and trains her eyes on the asphalt, looks for the skidmarks she knows are there. When she sees them—sees the whole stretch of guardrail, so much more substantial-looking in the bright light—she puts on her turn-signal and pulls into the grassy median. There is no emergency turn-around here, but the ambulance’s tracks are still visible. Her car’s wheels slot neatly into them, and she waits for one west-bound pickup truck to pass before she pulls onto the west-bound shoulder.

For long minutes, she simply sits in her car, not looking down over the embankment but looking out toward the reservoir. The lake is a blue mirror today, and there is a startling carpet of green ringing it. The last place she saw such verdancy was along the Platte, in Nebraska, and that feels like years away.

When she gets out, stands at the trunk, it might even be someone else’s car, but then she digs through her bags for the zippered case of foundation and lipstick. She has not worn any of it in three days, but there is a large soft brush at the bottom. It is meant for blush, and a pinkish haze rises as she bats it against her palm. She does that until no more color rises from the bristles. It’s not like the brushes she held in that summer dig in Crete. Those were stiffer, straw-colored, and this is sable-brown and so soft she isn’t sure it could clean anything. She doesn’t know why she is even taking it with her, not precisely, but she puts the handle into her back pocket, and puts her leg over the guardrail.

The ground is already dry again, no sign at all of yesterday’s rain except for the trails left in the gravel by the runoff. She leans, looks down over, and the place looks nothing like it had yesterday. The rock is clean and dry and white, and so she sits again. Behind her, the rubber-marks say that this is the place, but the place itself commemorates nothing. In this daylight, she isn’t even certain where Gregory Collander had lain. She hooks her heels carefully into the guardrail’s curve and stands atop it. The vantage point offers little new for her eyes, and, if it weren’t for the marks on the pavement and the damp upholstery, she would think that none of it was real at all. Her spine bends forward, her chin lifted, neck craned for any sign, and there—there is one small glint of something. Mirrors, broken to silvered dust. She climbs down from the guardrail and scrabbles down the rocky slope, crouched and backwards as a crab.

The dry gravel is a slippery scurrying of sound, but today she can find places to brace the climb. Yesterday, her hands didn’t know where to hold. When she reaches the pincer of two larger rocks, she knows that she has found the place she knelt and brushed back the long gray hair. She kneels again, touches the rock with bare palms, and dust sticks to them. She sifts handfuls of dirt, cups bits of rock in one hand and drags the brush-bristles over them. Her care returns nothing but average stones, but a glance downhill returns another winking glint. As she scuttles farther, the rocks all around glimmer their mica flecks and glassy studs of quartz, but butted against a lip of some gray stone, the gravel shows mirror-fragments in plain sight. She picks up those she can with the tweezer of thumb and forefinger, and she lines them up beside her. A fragment as large as a dime is enough to reflect back a bit of cheek, the bulge of her nose, the white of one eye.

She doesn’t stop drifting downward until she is touching the thick green grass of the reservoir’s plain. She’s nowhere near the water, but the slope stops entirely. Another inch of rain, she thinks, would flood the whole thing, but the ground is not soft beneath her feet, not the way it would be were she anywhere near home. Four pronghorn watch her warily for a moment, then bend their heads again. She thinks she can hear the grass tearing under their teeth.

The sun bakes hot on the back of her neck, so she kneels in the grass, and that is cool on her shins. Her knees ache as she draws a brush over the green blades. It cleans away some of the dust caught between the bristles, and then she skims the face of the last boulder to tumble down the slope. She cannot tell if it is new to this place at the hill’s bottom or if it rolled this far years ago. With one arm hooked over it, she sweeps away small grains of dust until a patch the size of her hand is stripped of everything but itself. The motion returns nothing to her, though she thinks it should. She tries to picture Philippos’s hands cradling some fragment of history, the loving breath to puff away sand. She cannot think of Philippos now. He was young and thin and his hair was a curly mop over his ears. His skull domed neatly, whole and solid, and he stays that way in her memory of a certain six weeks. He is a photograph of a person. They never touched. Gregory Collander existed only in a four-hour cup of remembrance, and, for most of that, he was no longer whole.

Kim drops the brush entirely, lets go of the rock, and crawls out farther into the grass. She leans down close to the earth, smells an old moistness and pronghorn dung. Small brown pebbles of it dot the land in piles. She ignores it and parts the blades of grass with her palms, and there, under their green arms, she sees more rock washed down into the plain. These, these she thinks must be new, but maybe they are not because the grass has grown up around them; they bend nothing down or away. She stands, and, to the left, the land’s sweep shows her yesterday’s erosion: a thinning string of rocks that have pushed the grass over. When she gets closer, the stems are bent sideways, the one dull side coated in dust. She thinks that she could brush them clean, but her interest is not the grass. What she wants is this small talus pile, the collection of pebbles and grit. She sits beside it and cups it palmful by palmful in her hands.

With a fingertip, she stirs, pushing out the rounded bits of stone, the fine weight of sand.

Twice she finds flat fragments that make her breath catch, one the size of the nail on her smallest finger, the other even smaller. She sets them aside but doesn’t know if they belong to Gregory, if he was cracked and fragmented even as the guardrail cut. She inches higher on the slope and the pile is deeper. She grooms the dirt into flatter shapes, rakes it with her fingers into parallel rows. This is zen gardening, she thinks, for the dead. Her fingernails are rough and blunted by the grit, but there is purpose in her wrists, in her fingertips. There might be a discovery here, in this place, and something pulls from her chest, as though there were a string tied to her sternum. The feeling doesn’t lead her anywhere, but it grounds her to the earth, and she creeps closer to the hill’s face. She picks up rocks the size of her fists, checks the silt beside and beneath their seats. When those places return nothing to her, she puts the rocks back as she found them.

Kim stands, stretches, and sits flat on the ground, her back to another boulder. The reservoir stretches out before her eyes, and she wonders if she could step up to the edge of it, dip her face and drink, the way the pronghorns do.

She decides that she can’t, but her car is only at the top of the slope, and she can drive into Glendo, get a drink, and fill her tank with gas. She puts her hands down, palm-first, and even then, as she gathers resolve to stand and climb, her fingers worm through the dust. Her left hand touches the concave side of an oblong shell, and there is no gritted crystal texture on its back. Without looking, she traces its shape, and she thinks turtle shell first, but there are no growth rings, no ridged texture there. She considers plastic, domed and smooth, but the piece is dense, solid, and she curves her fingertips under it.

She doesn’t have to look closely to know that this is bone, that this is what Philippos found and what she has been seeking. The color is freshly pale on its stomach, the inside curve, and when she turns it over, there is a darkened patch along its back, a ruff of gray hair still clinging. She touches it with the edge of her nail, and it gives, stiffly, dry and sun-baked. She breathes deep and turns it over again, looking at the concave bowl of it instead. There are small shifts in the texture, not all of it smooth like glass or ceramic cups, and she lets it rest in her palm.

Kim doesn’t ask herself or the air where the contents of this cup have gone. She rubs away the dust clinging to it, and, though she does not want to touch the place where the skin and hair still cleave to bone, she takes it to the water’s edge and rinses the gray strands clean.

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