Tchk-tchk-tchk-tchk roils the gravel beneath the tires. I’m hanging upside-down on my uncle’s pickup truck from the cab rack. It reminds me of gymnastics when I was in Minneapolis. Palms white with chalk. Gripping the bar like religion and Amelia Leinz saying “one, two, three, go!” as I try my hundredth time to perform a pull-over. I don’t. I land on my head and the cushion that catches my eight-year-old body wheezes.
But here it is different. The wheels tchk-tchk-tchk and the ground passes under me like a river of earth. There is no cushion and no wheeze. I fall I die, says Bob.
Robert. His name is Robert. He is my uncle and I met him a year ago. We were standing in my grandma’s kitchen and Sonny was scooping pigs’ feet from the jar and gnawing to the bone with his teeth. In those days anyone could pop right into your house. There was an air of welcome that hung on every porch, curled up and comfortable like the fat stray that eats the mice out of barn traps. One evening when the outside flies were tink-tink-tinking against the porch lights, a blond, scruffy head edged into the house knuckles-first and smile-second.
“Oh, mighty,” said my grandma, making a slow race to the door in her half-hobbling way. She was a slight, hunched woman. At night her skin was brown and flecked. In the day it looked paler, though. “That’s why I hadta leave,” she explained, “no reservation boy wanted a maybe-white-girl.” So she married a Finnish man instead- my grandfather- who definitively ended the maybe-white streak of the Kuha family and brought about a new era of just-pale-enough Finnish-Cherokee babes. She lifted her maybe-white arms and embraced the man who came in knuckles-first through the doorway and said “oh, mighty” one more time while the man patted her on the back and said, “how you doin, ma.”
My mom later told me he’d been gone for a decade since grandpa died. Where? Somebody said Arizona. Others said a hidey-hole in Bemidi right under our noses. But he didn’t ever say. He instead went around the room, hugging each, until he landed on me.
“This is my niece?” he threw a thumb in my direction. Grandma said “oh yes, and that’s Mary there.”
“I’m Bob,” he said to me. I stared up at him. Scraggly. Hair like the roots of a tree- beached and searching for soil. Eyes burned into the back of his head. Broken blood vessels. Blond beard pocked with grey smudges like ash from a fire.
“That’s a mighty silly name,” I replied.
“So is Snot,” he said curtly.
That’s how I got that name.
Over the summer months my mom telephones in from the city to update us on the goings-on. Big job, she says, big money in a big tower- and she’s working towards that corner office that makes everyone look like ants in the movies. But for now? Well, for now she’s snug tight in a cubicle next to a man who wears his socks around the office all proud and comfortable.
“I mean, this is a professional workplace,” she hisses on the phone, “you don’t see me taking off my heels.” I know which heels she wears. They’re black with a buckle. I don’t want to tell her she cheats a little by sneaking in that gel lining that makes each step like walking on wet grass in the morning (I’ve put them on and they feel just like that), so I keep quiet.
While she works, my uncle shows me down by the river how to skip stones. My grandma can’t know, he says, because she’s afraid of water.
I ask why and he says her two sisters drowned in a river not too far from here when the spring ice choked the streams up with water. They died just like that, he says, and snaps his fingers.
Just like that.
The driveway is a long stretch. You have to pretend, Bob says, to be good until we reach the end. My grandma watches us drive out. She’d whoop me red and raw if she caught me hanging on the cab rack. When we turn at the fence and the house disappears, Bob stops the pickup and waits for me to hook my legs around the top bar so I can hang upside-down. Then he guns it.
It’s always too fast for comfort. The wind hits me so hard that my hair flies in front of my face. Practically a ninety degree angle. Some days I just close my eyes and feel it. Smell the fields, the pig farm a mile down the road, the balsam pine trees lined up down the road military style. Other times I open my eyes wide and scream, watching the world unroll behind me like a giant smudged tongue, feeling small enough to be swallowed up. Today, however, I laugh. I let my arms hang and almost touch the ground. The gravel kicks up and hits my palms. It almost hurts.
The next morning Bob tells me he’s going to work. I don’t know what exactly that means until he pulls out a cigarette and looks nervously at the windows like they’ll crack. He sighs and part of a story escapes, but I can’t decipher it. He fishes in his pocket and pulls out an egg covered in moss. He says it used to be pretty. He found it in the old barn. One of the Fabrege Eggs my grandpa gave to my grandma before he passed, Bob says. He remembers.
He tells me to open it and I do. It has a rock in it. Red, layered, and as heavy as a beer bottle. He says again he has to work.
After coffee he gets in his car. My grandma and I watch from the porch as he pulls from the driveway. It’s a long stretch. I bet he pretends the whole way he’ll be coming back. But I know where he’s going. I look down to the rock in my palm. Red. Arizona red. I bet my grandma sees right through it, too. She’s used to people she loves disappearing just like that. I snap my fingers. Just like that.