Fireweed by Violetta Leigh

#HERCollective Contributor: Violetta Leigh

Lorrie didn’t even wait until Autumn passed out. He sat on the couch, legs hanging off the edge, in those bunchy jeans she found so unflattering. A half-empty beer clung to his ankle, teetering on the cheap carpet. His gaze remained fixed on the television, green eyes glazed. On the screen, hockey players swung around each other on the ice, connected, collided, and beat each other with poles. Blood marred ice. Men missing teeth screamed, silenced beneath the booming tone of the sports announcer.
She picked her way over his legs, shimmied past the coffee table, and slunk into the bedroom. She unrolled a navy canvas bag with leather handles onto the bed. Into it, she tucked three of her favourite ankle-length prairie dresses, bodices seamed with white lace. She packed spare underwear, a silver bangle set with a turquoise cabochan, brown lace-up loafers, a half-empty pack of cigarettes, and a sweater – in case it got cold. She plopped her cream wool hat with the floppy brim on her head and recrossed the living room. Later, reflecting on her exit, the details weren’t clear in her memory. She couldn’t recall if the room was dark and light flickered from the television screen, or if he was there, or if he wasn’t there, if he turned his head to follow her movement as she kicked on her sandals and walked out the door – probably not.
At some point, she collected her jean jacket from the wire hanger in the closet next to the front door. At some point, the screen door slammed on her way out. At some point, she decided not to go back. Her house keys nestled in the carpet under the coffee table.
It’s unfortunate men think their penis is a tether. Lorrie felt a smugness cultivating in Autumn for months. He never said anything, but it was the way his arm hung behind her, curved across the back of the couch, with his fingers brushing the nape of her neck. It was the way he savoured her watching the flex of his torso, as he dragged his favourite gray shirt up, while she sat in bed and waited. It was the curl of his smile when she slammed his dinner plate down after he cruised in, twenty minutes late again.
“I’m not going to keep cooking for you,” she said.
He dug his fork in, took a mouthful of green beans sautéed with butter and almonds.
“It’s good,” he said.

He wasn’t an asshole all the time. He said he loved her. He turned away from the television and touched her cheek with his fingers. He gazed at her, earnest, his eyebrows raised away from the sea glass green of his eyes. You know how beautiful you are? He said. You know how beautiful you are, right? He stroked the acoustic guitar he bought with the money he saved on his second semester after he dropped out of college during his first. He plucked the strings and read her body like he saw notes vibrating in the curve of her elbows or the rise of her clavicle. He took some introductory English courses and dropped out after he realized there’s no money in poetry.

When Lorrie went to Autumn’s apartment for the first time, he lived with a man he met in Introduction to American Poetry 1950s-Present. The roommate seemed faceless beneath the light brown scruff on his chin and cheeks. Lorrie remembered him clopping around perpetually in shorts, always playing a wooden instrument of some kind. He brewed chicory coffee replacement on the stove and murmured about the interconnected universe. He compared the spiral pattern found on the florets of Romanesco broccoli to the twirl of the galaxy.
Once, as they sat next on the couch, she sampled a joint he offered. He reached below the hem of her dress and touched the silver bracelets she wore on her ankle as she inhaled. Then, he touched the skin beneath the bracelets.
“All beings were made to fit together,” he said.
What a line. If all beings were made to fit together, she wondered if he would fuck his dog. She tapped ash onto the floor, passed the joint back, and escaped to Autumn’s room.
One of the first things that impressed Lorrie about Autumn was the book of poetry on his bedside table: required reading for his Introduction to American Poetry 1950s-Present class. They sat in bed, on top of sheets and blanket, and he read to her from The Pill vs. The Springfield Mine Disaster by Richard Brautigan. He read Gee, You’re So Beautiful That It’s Starting to Rain.
i want your long blonde beauty/ to be taught in high school,/so kids will learn that God/ lives like music in the skin

He told her that beat poets were the best ones, because anyone could understand them. They wrote to enunciate, to shout, to engage with an audience that leaned over tables in cafés and listened with their whole head tipped to the poet – ear a funnel for the tangled language to be spun into the brain. That day, she wondered if he saw sunshine woven into her ragged blonde hair. She wondered if he felt God stirring inside of him as he pushed the straps her dress of her shoulders and squeezed one of her breasts.

Later, she found out that he carried this one book of poetry around like a talisman. That he spoke poems about toilets and cups of coffee like they were mantras, words that invoked deep spiritual movement – lightning strikes of lust.

After Lorrie left the house, she walked down the quiet street of squat houses to the highway. Finally, a reason to be glad she lived close to the blast of speeding traffic. She set her canvas bag on the road-roughed gravel and stuck out her thumb.
Lorrie hitched from Colorado to New Mexico. She crossed the state border without much of a hassle. The driver didn’t say much. His skin glowed red from years of sun. His hair, white as cotton balls, curled back from his shining forehead. A long mustache drooped over his stoic mouth. He said he painted and trucked a load of finished canvases to Santa Fe for an art show. She said, sure, Santa Fe sounds cool. Santa Fe sounds like a chill city. He grunted, made a noncommittal movement of his shoulders. She leaned back in the passenger seat and lost herself in the twanging country music wailing from the dusty radio. A crystal hung from his rear-view mirror, a faceted piece of quartz that jittered when the truck hit potholes. The crystal encouraged her to trust him. Anyone who wanted to split open clear sunlight and touch a spectrum of colours couldn’t be bad, right?
When they stopped at a gas station, she waited until he headed inside to use the washroom and buy a sack of sunflower seeds. Once the door swung shut after him, she put her knuckles under the quartz-faceted light. She let indigo and violet colour her knuckles.
When the painter dropped her off, he unhitched the back of his truck to give her a look at his paintings: all self-portraits, nude, the images shining with the high gloss of oil paint The painter stood in his images, shriveled and naked, holding different animal skulls over his face. Bone shielded the rawness of his body. The skull offered an honest mask. She wished he would paint one of her.

The Silver Saddle budget economy motel was a Western-American stuccoed building built in flat geometric shapes. It rented rooms by the week. She started with one and promised herself to figure out a direction by the end of the month. She asked for a room at the back, near an exit, and the hotel clerk – a stout woman with powerful arms, a no-nonsense set to her features, and a single silvery braid curling over one shoulder gave her a skeptical look.
“You running, girl?” she said, passing Lorrie a ring with two keys dangling from it.
Lorrie shrugged and looked down. She wished she had an animal skull to hold over her face. She hadn’t cried since leaving the house. Maybe the clerk could see something else in her eyes.
In the hotel room, Lorrie stepped over old stains in the carpet like puddles. She dropped her bag on the bed. It didn’t bounce. The mattress sagged beneath the new weight. Lorrie let herself crumble for the first time since leaving.
The hotel room offered a desk with a plastic rotary telephone, miniature refrigerator, bed, bedside table, and window with curtains the colour of pumpkin pie and whiskey vomit. The curtains she pulled open. She contemplated the phone posed silent on the desk, plastic casing the colour of old skin. She took the handset from the base and laid it receiver up on the desk. Did Autumn still watch hockey on television? No. She left – two days ago? She pictured him picking up the phone from the cradle. Setting it down again. Picking it up, looking at the numbers, and having no set of digits to punch in.
The door of the mini-fridge held a line of amber liquors in tiny bottles. She swept them off the shelf and stole into the bathroom. The lightbulb guttered; the bathtub’s lavendar enamel cracked. She stepped across the seamed, water-swollen linoleum and dumped the liquor bottles on the back of the toilet. She unscrewed each miniature lid and poured the few mouthfuls down the sink. The empty bottles she stacked in the fridge.
She unzipped her bag and pulled her sweater on, then grabbed her crumpled pack of cigarettes and lighter. Behind the motel, a single plastic lawn chair sat beside an overflowing glass ashtray. The chair faced an expressionless expanse of red desert. Lorrie plopped down, untangling her long dress from her ankles. She moved the ashtray so she could reach it without leaning, pulled a cigarette from the pack, and set the rest beside her hip on the chair. Thumb struck lighter. The flame wavered over the end of the cigarette. When the tip smouldered, she inhaled.
Back at home – no – the house, she abandoned the dining room set her grandmother willed Lorrie. A walnut table that expanded for guests and four matching chairs, all polished to the tone of arbor velvet. She inhaled again, held the smoke in her lungs. The table set receded. The smoke filled her insides and forced out everything that wasn’t bone. She exhaled. Images of the house returned. Beer bottles cluttered the coffee table. Whiskey smouldered in Autumn’s throat. Clung to his palms. He played his guitar and slicked the strings with drink. He stumbled out the door and returned hours later, with one of their friends. Maybe Jordan, young and vulnerable, with a dyed red bob haircut that accented her wide mouth. Jordan always placed her small hands on Autumn’s chest when they chatted at his shows. She eyed his guitar like it could fuck her. Jordan was too young to see Autumn’s drinking as more than partying. In Lorrie’s black fantasy, Jordan followed Autumn home and he lowered her onto the empty sheets. Afterward, he reached over to the bedside table and picked up the book of poetry. He slid the pages open. Outside, it started to rain.

The next morning, she got up, showered, pulled on one of her lace prairie dresses, and headed to the continental breakfast. It featured eggs, rolls, a couple soft pieces of fruit, and strong Cowboy Coffee. Hot salsa on everything – green and red, like Christmas.
The woman from the front desk swung by her table with a steaming carafe of coffee.
“Refill?”
Lorrie nodded and avoided meeting the woman’s questioning stare. She refilled Lorrie’s cup, then nodded to her cigarettes and lighter. They lay next to her left hand, ready.
“Heard of fireweed?”
“What?” said Lorrie, taken off guard and mouth full.
“It doesn’t grow here,” said the woman, “but I’m from a different desert. Well, semi-arid zone. Up there, in the Okanagan.”
She gestured north. Lorrie hadn’t heard of it and shrugged slow, chewing eggs.
“Fireweed only blooms after a forest fire. You think the whole forest is wiped out, tree trunks black and scarred, then these huge stalks with purple blossoms appear overnight. Remember, some seeds need heat to germinate. It’s never over.”
Lorrie swallowed. The bite stuck.
“O-okay,” she said.
Lorrie gulped hot coffee to ease the eggs caught in her throat. The woman nodded and drifted away, giving her privacy.
After breakfast, Lorrie headed behind the motel. She dragged the plastic chair into the shade for the first half of the day. She smoked. At about five or six in the afternoon, she dragged the chair into the sunlight and soaked in the warmth. She wore her wide light-lensed sunglasses. She kept her floppy hat pulled over her blonde hair.
The desert unravelled behind the motel, dusky red and wild. Pocked pumice hills swelled into limestone cliffs that dripped different shades of rusty stone. Saw-edged Agave hunkered in the red dirt. Beaver tail cacti squatted between green sage brush and scrub grass. She watched. A brown and gray snake s-weaved its way from one bunch of sage to another. The frothy flowers perched on the long stalks of shaggy Yucca cactus shivered in a breeze blowing too high for her to appreciate. She traced rock formations with her eyes and created shapes in her mind. That one, a tall crisp bottle of beer. The one over there, two figures sitting together, hunched towards each other, murmuring secrets. The bottom bulge of red-gold stone formed the base of a banjo. A long pillar of rock stretched upwards: the neck of the instrument.
She smoked until sunset, lighting the new tip of one cigarette with the coal end of the old stub. In the hotel diner, she ordered a vegetarian burrito with lots of beans, rice, avocado, tomato, and lettuce. The woman at the front desk watched Lorrie as she crossed lobby from diner to rooms. With one thick arm propped on the counter, the woman turned her whole head to watch Lorrie pass. She didn’t acknowledge the gaze. If all beings were connected, could the woman feel what Lorrie felt? She felt like a television set with its screen smashed in. Like a digital hockey player smashed into the boards. Like a series of screaming pixels. She returned to the chair at the back of the motel and resumed her ritualized chain smoking.

After three days, Lorrie felt delirious. It was sometime after nine at night and she was riding a nicotine high that crashed through her body like the desert wind. Her fingers hung so limp they barely clung to her smoke. Crumpled white cigarette packages cluttered the trash can in her room. They crept over the lip of the basket and tossed themselves over the stained carpet. Lorrie, took a drag, paused, and crossed her legs. She rested the hand holding the cigarette on her propped up knee. She closed her eyes for a moment.

he wants her long blonde beauty to be taught in high school. she sits on the couch and he storms back and forth in front of her. the coffee table is kicked beside the t.v. behind the t.v.? he wanted to play the music that god told him lived under her skin. no? you’re too drunk. he’s too drunk. we’re too drunk. he shouted. the coffee table flipped over. she put her knuckles between her teeth. sat on the couch with her knees together. cried without really feeling the shudder in her breastbone. just warm water. salty lips. do you know what it’s like when your father comes home so drunk he falls down? no. do you know what it’s like when you’re thirteen and your dad comes home so drunk he shits his pants and passes out and you’re too small to pick him up? no. you don’t know shit. she doesn’t know what any of it is like. he kisses her. she kisses him. salty lips. he pulls her knees apart. she is crying. he bends her over the end of their couch and her dress is pushed up, but it isn’t off. he leaves his favourite shirt on. he doesn’t pull it off with one long flex of his body. her palms pressed to the couch cushion, poised with her hips hanging her suspended off the end of the couch. her knuckles are purple. her fingers dig into the fabric. he is hard and pushes into her. she isn’t sure if she’s turned on. after he comes, he pulls out and it drips onto their carpet. i’m sorry. he apologizes. i’m sorry. i have to go. i’m sorry. Somewhere, a door slams.

Lorrie woke up. Her knees smouldered. How long had she passed out for? Her knees felt too hot. Was the sun still out? Did she pass out and sunburn? The cigarette wasn’t between her knuckles anymore. She reached down to brush ash off her knees and her palms encountered a wall of light. Asleep, the cigarette drooped and wicked fire from her dress. She was on fire. Yellow tongues of flame slid over her knees, up towards her hips. She screamed.
Up, not fast enough, she tore the dress over her head. Her back arched. The dress wouldn’t come off. It seemed to be glued to her skin, grafted to her figure. She tore at the charred lace bodice, but the fabric stuck. She screamed again, but no one came – not even the desk clerk. Maybe no one cared. Maybe they couldn’t hear her.
The flames ate through her dress. She rubbed her palms over her bare skin, but didn’t feel scorched. Her skirt dropped off and fell with a sucking whoosh to burn around her ankles. The bodice burned and bared her chest. She rubbed the last blackened notes of fabric off. She tore away her hat before it caught fire. Naked and sooty, she hunched behind the motel.
Silence framed the desert. The grind of far away traffic faded. No birds whispered to each other, clinging to thick-skinned cacti between the spines, or rustling among the musky sagebrush. Lorrie thought she heard wind skipping across the dented surface of the pumice hills.
Behind her, the upturned lawn chair lay on its back, stiff plastic legs jutting upwards. A few bits of blackened fabric dotted a circle of scorched earth. Might as well keep going, she thought, ready to move forward in any direction. She uncrossed her arms from across her breasts and straightened her spine. Shoulders back, bare and smudged with ash, she stepped into the desert.

Violetta Leigh majored in creative writing and environmental studies at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. She is published by Minola Review, In Shades magazine, Situate magazine, and Active Fiction Project. She has upcoming publications with So to Speak and SAND. She coordinates events with Real Vancouver Writers’ Series. She thinks perfection is ugly and in the things humans make want to see scars, failure, disorder, distortion. Find her online at: www.violettaleigh.com

feature image from flickr

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