What purer way could we descend than drunk
on Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, our battered trucks
and cars (most hand-me-downs from parents
or—the case of one or two—from siblings gone
into the army or to jail) lined on the shoulder
of a gravel road, all headlights off and music silenced,
as we gathered at a spot that looked no different
than the pastureland surrounding us for twenty miles?
It took you pussies long enough, a football player
said and threw an empty can into the field
before he jumped down from his pickup’s hood.
Two girls climbed from the cab. One carried half
a six-pack by the empty rings (it dangled to her knees,
the cans like fish along a stringer) as the other girl
took three steps, teetered in her heels, then laughed—
a snort—and held onto the left side mirror of the truck.
Already drunk before we left her father’s house,
I’d come here with the one girl I believed
I’d ever love. Inside my car, she’d rolled
the window down, slid off her shoes, and placed
her bare feet on the dash, her forearms drawing knees
to chest. Her hair moved with the patterns of the breeze,
reminding me of how I’d seen a midway game
when I was nine where girls in mermaid tails,
bikini tops, all dove for rings the patrons tossed
into a tank, the carnies spitting chew into the water
as their girlfriends laughed (I’d yet to comprehend
how aging women—irrespective of their wealth
and class—dislike the beautiful and young).
So what the fuck we waitin’ for? the football player asked
and pressed his boot down on the bottom wire
of a barbed-wire fence, while with his hand he drew
the middle wire upward, tense, as if it were a compound bow.
My girlfriend crawled through first, then I, then both
the giggling drunk girls, followed by six other students,
mostly cheerleaders and jocks, although a roper
who’d arrived alone (he cultivated friendships
with the jocks because, like them, he liked to fight
with strangers) pulled his cowboy hat down
tighter on his head and slipped beneath the middle wire.
I helped the football player, last one through,
then joined the others where they whispered loudly
in the field. The only light came from the moon
and in the field my girlfriend’s skin was like the color
of the slate-blue gravestones in the cemetery that I passed
each day when driving back and forth from school.
I saw her in the moonlight as the daughter from the one play
we had read in English class: the image of Ophelia,
lips turned blue, and floating just beneath the surface
of the water. As I stood before a slab of poured
cement about the size of three adjacent tennis courts,
a seam dividing it in half, I thought, The gates of hell
are open night and day (a line from Dante I had come across
two months before when reading for a class report—
the topic we’d been given was “The Consequence of Sin”).
My girlfriend cinched one arm around a rusted metal rung
preceding other rusted metal rungs that formed a ladder
going downward in a concrete cylinder beneath a grating,
eight feet wide, the hatch tipped back and resting
on the lock the football players had “released”
with bolt cutters, a crowbar. When I reached the bottom
of the cylinder my girlfriend took my arm and placed
the flashlight in my hand. She shivered and I lay
my coat across her shoulders as we stepped into a room
(the door was like a submarine hatch on its side,
but larger, six feet in diameter, the screw heads big
as fists that held the hinges to the wall). Inside the room
were metal bunks along two walls, three consoles
with black monitors, and empty rectangles in metal tabletops
that once held keypads or remote controls, now sprouting
wires and severed cables. Toilet works, a football player said
while pissing in the metal bowl beside one bunk, the sound
of urine in the basin like a drum roll on a snare. That’s gross,
one drunk girl said, and held her nose. That makes me
have to pee now too, the other drunk girl answered,
squeezing knees together as she shook her hands
in front of her as if long strips of tape clung to her fingers.
Someone yelled hello from just beyond us through the second
door, the word resounding as we stepped from the control room
to the silo where the missile once was housed—a cylinder
of darkness, air, approximately fifty feet across, and rimmed
by metal grating (platforms ten feet wide encircling every floor)
and ladders that had given workers access to each section
of the missile. When the roper tossed a metal cabinet door
he’d jimmied loose into the darkness at the center of the silo,
we all waited for the sound of metal crashing to the concrete floor.
Instead, we heard a splash. I lay down on my belly
at the grating’s edge and shined my flashlight to the bottom
of the silo where the water’s surface rippled eighty feet
or so below us. Rain water, I said, the bottom must not drain.
No kidding needle dick, a football player answered
as a cheerleader unzipped the football player’s backpack
and removed five cans of spray paint, handing them
to other cheerleaders and jocks, some standing on the platform
as the others peered from the control room doorway.
Fuck the eagles, was the phrase one football player spoke aloud
as he inscribed it (one hand holding out the spray can as the other
held the light) onto the image of the mascot someone
from our cross-town rival had already painted on the wall.
The roper sprayed a stylized cock (two circles and a shaft,
a triangle to signify the head) beside a butterfly someone
had drawn two years before (The Class of 86 was painted
in one wing). I gathered myself up and went to join
my girlfriend where she waited back in the control room.
Sitting on a bunk, she raised a finger to her lips the moment
when I entered as she pointed to the drunk girl
who had almost fallen from the ladder when descending,
now asleep and snoring softly in a metal chair spot welded
to the floor before a console in the middle of the room.
The other drunk girl shook a can of spray paint, giggled,
then continued working on the sleeping drunk girl’s feet.
She sprayed across the straps and heels, the flesh
from just below the ankle to the toes. The smell of paint
soon filled the room and I leaned back into the bunk.
My girlfriend slid her other hand beneath my shirt,
her palm against my chest and whispered
something in my ear I couldn’t fully understand
(the words were indistinct, the way one speaks
when waking or just falling into sleep). Her breath
smelled like a mix of cigarettes and alcohol—a smell
inseparable from her, so strong that even now
the slightest scent of smoke (a stranger stepping
in an elevator or the hint of cigarettes that lingers
in a rental car or hotel room) transports me to her home,
her bedroom where she’d lie on top of me;
her stomach muscles tightened slightly when she spoke,
and I would feel their movement in my own. Her parents
never came to check on us. No father, speaking loudly,
made his way downstairs. No mother brought a plate
of cookies to her daughter’s room. My girlfriend told
me once of how her father (not the man her mother met
ten years ago—the man her mother married quickly
who sold insurance and wore a bolo tie, who, nervous,
sucked his mustache with his lower lip while staring
at the ceiling—but her father father: drunk extraordinaire,
the man her mother never spoke about) had called my girlfriend
(she was nine years old) into the living room, her mother
not yet home from work (her mother was a nursing
student then) and, sitting on their broken futon,
lined a row of bullets one by one by one along the surface
of the coffee table as he told her that he needed
her to bring her mother to the living room. He raised
a pistol from the coffee table when he told my girlfriend this
and spun the cylinder. She said she waited for her mother,
watching for her through the storm door’s glass,
and when my girlfriend saw her mother pull into the drive,
she stepped outside and ran to meet her mother’s car.
My girlfriend told the story frankly, never changing in her tone:
I led her to the house and closed the door behind her.
When my mother did return (it felt like half an hour, though
it probably wasn’t more than six or seven minutes from the moment
when she stepped inside), no suitcase in her hand,
just walking quickly, it was then that I began to cry.
She lifted me from where I sat beside the door
and carried me, my mother never speaking, to the car.
My girlfriend said what she remembered most was standing
in the yard (a rock bed spreading from the curb to house,
the duplex owners skeptical that renters cared enough
to mow a lawn) and how she knew that she would have to follow
afterwards whichever parent came back out. My mother met
my stepfather soon after that and moved us in his house.
Midwinter, four years later, when the stove went dead,
a new one had to be delivered and installed. My stepfather
was gone when it arrived, and as my mother signed
the paperwork the driver gave to her, another man
walked backwards slowly, pulling on the dolly.
When my mother held the door for him he grunted
as a way of saying thanks. He did not even look.
“I think your father’s in the kitchen working
on our stove,” was what my mother said as I peered
from the den. We both hid in a bedroom as they finished.
When my father took the dolly to the truck, my mother called
into the den that she was busy in the other room—the men
should leave the way that they came in. I watched my father
through the bedroom window as he waited in the truck.
He pulled the visor down and with the backside of his hand
he jiggled slightly up and down the skin beneath his chin.
It was the last time that I saw him. After that, we moved
down here. When lying on her bed, I asked my girlfriend
if she ever asked her mother what went on inside the house,
what happened with the bullets and the gun. She said
she didn’t want to know, then turned her gaze away from me,
her cheek against my chest. I shivered as she worked
her fingers downward to my ribs and belly and I closed my eyes.
Perhaps what I loved most about her was the fact she never
seemed to fully be at ease—not skittish, but removed;
in class, I’d catch her staring at the clock when other students
had their heads bent to a test, and when I picked her up three
days a week from diving practice after school, she’d always
be the first one from the building. Walking fast, her wet hair
drawn into a ponytail, she’d slide into the car and pull
the shoulder strap across her, snap the buckle closed,
while other girls still lingered in the locker room.
At meets, she sat alone, one towel at her waist,
her knees to chest, another towel on her shoulders.
Always, in between her dives, she placed her headphones
to her ears and drew the towel upwards from her shoulders
to her head and let the towel settle over her until
the diving coach reached out and touched her on the shoulder,
signaling the time had come to dive. In air, my girlfriend’s arms
and head would lead her body and she tucked her head
against her knees when spinning forward, breaking
from her tuck, releasing in a flash, a spring uncoiled,
her body rigid as she sliced into the water. Once or twice
a meet she’d nail a dive—the perfect entry where the water
did not splash, but ripped (the phrase her coach would use)
receiving her without condition. Always in my memory
she is climbing slowly from the pool, her hands on each side
of the ladder, as she looks to see the scores the judges lift
(the plastic numbers, folding placards) just above their heads,
the same look (distant, quizzical) she gave beside me
in the bunker of the missile silo when we heard the steps
of other people coming down the ladder, heard their voices
(angry, clipped), and with the voices came the light:
four beams, intense and circling at the bottom of the ladder.
Both drunk cheerleaders were sleeping peacefully by then
and I assumed the jocks, the roper, and the other girls
had started smoking pot, their spray cans emptied, thrown
into the water at the bottom of the shaft. My girlfriend sat up
in the bunk beside me. When she looked at me with something
not too far removed from terror in her gaze, I thought,
Perhaps it is the workers from the silo, gone from here
for twenty years, or maybe it’s the Russians come at last
(in homeroom, we had watched the movie seven times
where communist commandos swarmed a lone
midwestern high school, killing all inhabitants except
the students who resisted). Though I did not think it at the time,
perhaps my girlfriend thought the stranger coming down
the ladder was her father, that he’d found her once again.
But when I saw the first cop’s boots and legs descending
into view, I knew the rancher must have seen our row
of cars, or heard us in the field, or, tired of students
sneaking on his land, he waited up that Saturday
until we all descended, no way out, into the silo.
When the first cop stepped into the room he turned his light
on us. Removal went like this: the cheerleaders, the roper
and the jocks were searched beside us at the bottom
of the ladder just before we had to climb out one by one.
The cheerleaders and jocks had thrown their joints
into the darkness at the center of the silo when they heard
the cops call out, but soon the cops removed a Ziploc bag
of marijuana from the roper (he had brought it on request—
the other reason that the jocks hung out with him).
The drunk girls both had woken up and blearily one asked
a cop to drive them home; the other, silent, looked down at her feet,
both painted black. And though the cops all hardly spoke
(they cuffed us in the field before they led us to the cars),
the rancher would not stop. He asked our names. He told
the cops about the type of feed the cows would eat,
the way his wife had overcooked his food for thirty years
and how she’d died two years before. He’d found her
when he came in from the fields one night, spaghetti sauce
still bubbling on the stove, her hands in lap, her back against
a cabinet as she sat unmoving on the kitchen floor. He led us
to the gate, across the cattle guard and up the road until we stood
beside our vehicles, now flanked by several squad cars.
When the cops asked what the rancher wanted
them to do, he squinted; then he looked down at the ground.
One football player had been crying as we walked
and when he heard the hesitation in the rancher’s voice
he stopped his blubbering. I got a blowtorch in the barn,
the farmer said, I should have welded shut that hatch before.
The cops undid our handcuffs and we rubbed our wrists.
We held our hands before us, staring at the fronts and backs.
The roper, cursing still, was escorted into a squad car.
They would kindly follow us until we reached the highway,
one cop said. And then, he snarled, you’re on your own.
And when we pulled onto the highway and the cops turned back,
and other cars and trucks of friends took exits one by one,
I did not think of mercy or of luck or fate. I only listened
to my girlfriend breathing softly in her sleep, her jacket
folded as a pillow and then wedged between the headrest
and the window. When we slowed before her house, I touched
her lightly on the arm to wake her. Memory is a type of dream,
I think. She looked at me and did not speak. She put her fingers
to my lips, a gesture I have never fully understood, the darkness
thinning through the car, the street, beyond the rows
and rows of homes. A robin swooped behind us, flashing
in the rearview mirror just before he settled on a power line.
Look, I said, but when she turned to find him, he was gone.