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Julia Patt is a blogger, writer, and editor living on Maryland's Eastern Shore. She holds degrees from Sweet Briar College, the MFA program at UNC Greensboro, and the Graduate Institute of St. John's College. Her work has recently appeared in Vestal Review, Southern Women's Review, The Fiction Desk, Phantom Drift, and elsewhere. She edits 7x20, a journal of Twitter literature.
Stealing the Ace
Shortlisted in the 2014 Seán Ó Faoláin Competition
Caroline wakes me just after dawn. She puts her hand over my sleep-open mouth and says “Beth,” with her eyes close to mine, one finger raised for quiet. I come out of my shallow dreams easy; every night I skim the surface of a wide, black lake, never sinking into real sleep. It’s been that way since the old man died last week. A steady kind of drifting.
Not for Caroline. She paces sock-footed across the hardwood floor of our bedroom, that tightly wound energy in her—stifled the past week. She opens her mouth to hurry me along as she would have only a week ago but thinks better of it. I pull on yesterday’s jeans, tie my hair back. In the bathroom, I run cool water over my face. A sticky film clings to my unwashed skin under my clothes. The house smells linger in my hair, usual old house smells, mold and dust and pine shavings, but also those treacle and lavender funeral smells, all dense and dragging and much too sweet. Should open all the windows, let it out, get it out, but our mother won’t have it. The door down the hall stays tight closed. The whole house, shut up and stifling.
She’s forgotten us, I want to tell my sister. Last time we opened the door, she wouldn’t speak, only sat and stared.
“Ready?” Caroline worries a fingernail. She’s taken the old man’s bomber jacket out of mothballs and it hangs off her like the skin of some long extinct animal, bloated.
We carry our boots down the stairs, step over the creaky landing, one foot and then the other. Towards the bottom, Caroline catches my arm and we pause. One of the well-meaning relatives – our mother’s sisters and cousins and nieces – turns over. They sleep on cots in the living room, a rotating regiment of casserole cooks and tea brewers who show no signs of dispersing, although the service is three days past. They bring us starchy food on trays, take our bundles of laundry, scrub the dishes in the sink. When we leave our room, their words flatten to whispers and they squeeze our limp hands, touch our dry cheeks with their warped hands.
But this morning, they lie quiet and we creep out through the foyer, soft-shutting the door behind us, Caroline tucked behind me like a shadow. We sit on the porch steps, lace and knot our heavy shoes. Don’t speak, but our elbows knock together when we move and all eighteen of our years – her just a bare ten months ahead of me – are settled between us. “The girls,” the old man called us, “my girls.”
For a while, we believed him, that we were his and he was ours. Even though we came to him secondhand, someone else’s family he plucked up at the flea market, abandoned by another man we barely remember. A little scuffed, yes, but serviceable, good enough. He was old even then, older than our mother is now. And with his own dings and scrapes on him—four grown children, a liberated wife moved to a Montana dude ranch. So we lived in the white house with him. Rattled the porch with our running footsteps. Tumbled down the stairs. Our mother cooked in the kitchen, shared the old man’s bed. But the house wasn’t ours and the porch wasn’t ours and the old man wasn’t ours—not in the legal sense. And no one cared to tell us, silly, little girls, his girls, that it wouldn’t last, that the old man might grab one numb arm some morning and fall over in the dust and ruin it all. I had wanted to shake him as he lay there in that narrow box.
The two sons came to the funeral, easy to spot in their clean black suits, the only people we didn’t know. They sat in front row with us and our mother without a word to anyone. After the service – flowers on the coffin, handfuls of dirt into the grave, the steady, warm press of Caroline’s arm against mine – they turned and left, drove away in a shiny black car. Yesterday they came again, stood behind the screen porch door and talked, the way policeman and debt collectors and evangelists do, not bothering to cross the threshold. Stood behind the screen door and then one of them said, “We’ve come to look at the property.”
We stood on the other side of the door, a flock of our mother’s relatives around us, their flutter-bird hands trying to pull us away.
“You—” Caroline tried to say.
“We can show ourselves around, of course,” the other one said. And they turned towards the barn, his barn, and their shoes made dull noises on the old porch.
“You can’t,” I wanted to say, but couldn’t make the words sound right. I ran out after them, reaching to pull on those pristine jackets, to rip the seams, break their beetle-black glasses under our feet. A startled Caroline followed me a moment later; her hand hovered above my arm, as though she didn’t know whether to grab or join me.
The relatives flustered around us and one of them called the sons back – his sons, but they looked nothing like him, our old man – and said, “Really, it’s not a good time. Can’t you see they’re upset?”
They shrugged. Said they’d come back tomorrow, then. Today.
Caroline taps my knee and I shudder out of it, out of the way they looked at us, their strong cool voices. She reaches over, squeezes my fingers just above the knuckles. I follow her off the porch and towards the barn. Way across the fields under the mountain – it’d been a farm house once, the old man’s house, back before he was the old man – the sun peeps over the edge of earth, down by the highway, and throws warm shades across the grass.
Inside the barn, the rich stink of machine oil. Sawdust under our feet. The air is cooler, even, than the outside. Caroline flicks the lights and there is the old man’s workshop: the broad, slab workbench and two massive red metal toolkits loom against the wall, wrenches and hammers hang from their nails, and the motorcycles, four rows of gleaming machines, balanced on their stands as lightly as dancers.
Caroline takes the keys from their hook on the wall. Except for the odd word, we haven’t spoken in days, but then we don’t need to, not lately, not since the old man died and the house filled with whispers and our mother’s heavy presence upstairs. Words have become ugly to us, awkward and ungainly as a crippled dog. I follow her to the last row and we both stand next to the Ace, curl our fingers around the handle bars, let our knees bump the steel exhaust pipes, murmur nonsense to it the way we might an old friend. Its single headlight catches the low light. And there, the eagle, wings outstretched through the “ACE” scribed on the body. It’s a slender piece for its time, heavier than it looks.
On Wednesdays – our mother’s late nights working at the diner in town – we came home to the old man in the barn. We perched on high wooden stools to do our homework while he tinkered, his overalls splattered with oil and grime, the guts of the machines littered around him. Tinny, twangy bluegrass crackled on the radio. Sometimes we called out a math question and he’d answer from under a bike, his teeth clamped around a wrench. If we finished before our mother returned, we watched him work, pointed to this part or that part and asked what it did. And when we were old enough, we rode behind him in the yard and down the driveway, spinning circles, kicking up dust, and laughing.
Caroline straightens the Ace and kicks away the stand. She is gentle with it, a rare quality in her, who tended to rattle around the white house before the old man died, who slipped down drain pipes and across the fields with ease, who begged our mother for a motorcycle license and practiced on the back roads hair flying behind, who bullied the boys at school and kissed them in the same breath. Who once shouted at the old man that it was none of his business what she did, not really, what was he to her. Her the adventurer, me the quiet follower when I couldn’t bear to be left behind. If the old man hadn’t died first, I would have come to resent her, maybe hate her, but now I am glad she’s still here. I join her on the other side of the bike, mirror her care. Yes, we should be gentle. It is, after all, the Ace, and the Ace is special.
We never saw the old man quite so happy as when he’d discovered a new project and the Ace was no exception. A frequenter of junkyards and estate sales, he had a kind of gift for seeing through rust and disuse and sensing the shining steal and chrome, clear rumbling engines, high speeds. When he brought the Ace back—Caroline eleven, me ten—it was little more than a skeleton, the frame of once powerful thing, wasted and brittle.
“What is it?” A Wednesday. We ate pizza from a greasy box at the workbench.
The answer came from under the bike. We could see the messy white ruff of the old man’s hair. “This, girls, is an Indian Ace. Only made for one year. 1928. As old as I am.”
He labored over the Ace well into our teens. It was the last bike we saw him finish, the last of the Wednesdays—by then we were old enough to stay in the house on our own. When the bike was done, he painted it deep, heart’s blood red, and its deep-throated purr filled the whole yard. We took turns riding behind him, not just around the yard but the down the highway, down the thin gray tongue of pavement to the Pepco station and back, our arms around his waist, our faces obscured by the full-face helmets he insisted we wear. My stomach always dropped when he accelerated, as if part of me might be left behind. The wind rippled my clothes. There was so little tying me down, just my legs hugging the motorcycle, just my hands clasped over the old man’s jacket.
We wheel the bike out into the yard and the sun is climbing, brighter than it was when we went into the barn. We walk it out to the gravel driveway and down and it’s all back, the spray of stones and dirt behind us, the tacky feel of the old man’s leather jacket under my palms. He was quiet, more wont to listen than to speak, and not one for displays of affection. But that day, the day we rode the Ace, it didn’t matter what he said or didn’t say.
We move away from the house, silent except for the slow turn of stones under the tires, praying that no one will wake. The quiet of the last week tugs on me like a long rubber band, as if the house full of sleeping, well-meaning relatives and our grieving mother wants to pull us back in, back into the reek of wilting flowers and heavy food warming in the oven and unchanged sheets. I want to snap that feeling of stretching, to break it and leave the last week behind and so I open my mouth for the first time all morning.
At first, it’s just a creak that comes out, a rusty hinge noise that gets caught under the tires turning and the distant sound of the highway and the our boots crunching on the road. “Let’s—” I try again and clear my throat. Caroline looks up, both eyebrows raised. “Let’s ride it now.” It’s the first sentence I’ve spoken all week.
She looks at me, my sister, and she doesn’t protest that we’re not far enough from the house and someone will hear us if we start the engine now and guess what we’re up to, and she doesn’t ask me if I’m sure that that’s what I want, that this is what I want at all, the two of us sneaking away in the early morning with the old man’s – our father’s, is he our father in her head like he is in mine? – bike, and she doesn’t mention the fact that I’m wasted and brittle, the same way she’s wasted and brittle, our faces both pale and shrinking from not crying, not once since he died. Instead she looks at me, the way she’s looked at me the last few days, like something’s changed and she can’t say what, like I’m becoming someone she doesn’t recognize but somehow knows. Then she nods once, and says, “Okay.”
Caroline swings one leg over the seat and I follow; she puts the key in ignition and steps down hard on the kickstart; the engine turns over and she does it again; the bike is alive, thrumming beneath us and I put my arms around my sister. Hold on. Like that, we’re moving, and the gravel sprays behind us and if anyone in the old white house heard us, there is no sign. Not that they could catch us now anyway.
We spill out onto highway, the wind tugging back our hair and sleeves and I tighten my hold on Caroline as she accelerates, her the only thing that’s holding me to the bike, really, and we’re slicing down the strip of concrete, nothing but that gray line going forwards and backwards into everything.
It was a Wednesday and I was not yet seventeen, too old for Wednesdays, but Caroline had gone out with a boy and the house was eating me up somehow with her not being there. So I fled, left behind our shared bedroom with the movie star posters and Caroline’s record collection and went out into the barn and the old man lay under another black carcass of a bike, a bulky Honda this time, and I sat on one of the stools he left out, force of habit, he would have said, and the radio was off that day. Me and the old man in the quiet of the barn. I just sat and listened to the clink of metal on metal, and once he said “pipe wrench” and I handed it over and he said, “Thanks, Beth,” and it struck me that he almost never said my name. I had always been one of “his girls,” indistinguishable from my sister. But then, just then when I needed it most, I was “Beth”. So I said, “Sure,” and those were the only words we exchanged all afternoon, him under the bike and me watching.
Caroline really puts on the gas now, and we’re going off into the Blue Ridge into the smoke-colored mountains and the green, green trees, and there’s that that gut-seizing moment of movement and the air filling our clothes and that loose, untied feeling in me and surely in her, and maybe we never come back, maybe she drives until we run out of gas and we both get jobs in some little nowhere place deep in the hills and stay until it’s time to move on again, and we just go like that, always leaving the old man’s white house behind us, just us and the Ace riding into forever.
©2015 Julia Patt
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