by Darlene Greggis
Renata gripped the cast iron until pain registered in her palm—such a sweet ache. When the pan clattered to the stove, Harry jerked in his chair behind her, and it was all she could do to not laugh. At the sink, she let cold water run until it too burned the skin.
“What’re you doing?” he said. “That pork burnt now?”
“Breakfast is just fine. Singed myself is all.”
A delicious fire grew below the pus bubbles dotting her right hand. Harry continued to bitch about breakfast, about the dry air day and night. The slab of meat lay blackened in the pan, and the small knife she had used to cut the pork belly still rested in its spot on the counter. She snatched it, drew the blade across one of the blisters, and let the juice drip onto the meat.
“Here you go. Just like you like ’em,” she said as she plucked the bacon from pan to plate and then twirled to present it to him.
“The sky’s full of ash,” she said.
Harry stopped the rocker, the pipe barely gripped by his lips, and bent his head to peer from under the porch overhang. The western sky burned pink, with a stratification of gray haze beneath.
“The lava must be flowing hard today. Best keep the animals penned up.”
Renata shrugged and got back to sweeping the front steps. Crisp leaves had wedged into the cracks between planks, requiring a sturdy thrust to free them. She swung her hips as she went, catching a private rhythm.
“You go on do it then,” she said. “I got my own chores.”
As he lumbered toward the barn, she thought of how he used to gyrate when he was atop her in bed, back before his dick went limp. God had answered her prayers on that one. Make it fucken useless, she had said, bent down on knees with hands clasped. And God woke one glorious day with the hand of the lame at work.
The chickens squawked as he chased them into their coop. Already the air had become hot in the lungs, the taste of copper in it. She finished her sweeping, stored the broom, and went from room to room to close and seal the windows. The TV in the living room scrolled a safety proclamation for eastern Colorado due to lava activity, just like Harry said. After a peek through the window to see that he had moved on to the pigs, she put in a disc of the ballerina Misty Copeland, some solo performance, and that woman leaped as if her soul might catch fire. Each bend of her spine, each foot en pointe was sublime. That woman, when she was alive, captured the true liberation of movement. Renata raised her arms and stretched herself back until she faced the ceiling, its warped surface dotted with mold. No matter, it wasn’t the ceiling that took her focus but the celestial beyond it. She bent her chin to see Misty fling her body with abandon, seeming to take suspended flight, breaking the rules of gravity.
“What the hell’re you doing?”
Harry stood in the living room archway, splotches of pig shit on the legs of his overalls. She clutched herself, half-turned as if caught naked, and readied a torrent of abuse. But he said no more: no barbs; no half-wheezed insults; only a stupid gawk at what had been her performance.
“Dancin’s all,” she said. “What of it to you?”
“You can flop around all you want. But get supper ready first.”
Harry ambled upstairs to wash, or at least she hoped he would. He’d touch her tonight likely, an occurrence he considered tenderness. Such endless days, one after the other, the dry air cracking the membranes of the lungs until they were brittle. And here, serving her husband as if she were a maid, not one better than a fuck doll like Mister Manford had, always talking about it like his companion; bragging to the men in town the things he did to her and how she loved it; brought her into town all made up, the thing spewing its flirty lines for men and women alike. Renata had stared once as he paraded her around town, stared hard into the thing’s eyes, and mingled with the emptiness of her black holes was a despair that can’t be hidden from one who knows.
So, she hoped Harry would bathe, wipe the pig shit from out under his nails before he slid those fingers inside. Then he would sleep, and she could sneak down, push the furniture out of the way, and spring around the living room like a fucken gazelle.
At dawn, the sky showed a crisp blue. The previous day’s smoke had cleared, sucked toward the plains by cool currents. For one day at least the air wouldn’t blister their throats. The animals could roam and chew up the meatiest grass tufts.
Harry slept at the edge of the bed. She stared hard, stopping the act of slipping on her dress. More than once she’d felt obliged to end his misery in a criminal way. But she wanted no fucken guilt over it. The universe would do its work on him natural, just like everyone else.
“You’re giving me some evil eye,” he said, rolling his head on the pillow toward her. “What did I do?”
Renata shivered into the flowered dress. “Ain’t done nothing. Was just thinking what I would do if you were gone. Can barely manage this fucken farm and animals now. You’re creeping ever close to your final acquaintance with the dirt.”
“Ah,” he said. “You woke up with embers inside. You ain’t got to worry. I have a plan. Those molten rivers come closer every day. We’re going to get out of here soon, go to Minneapolis where my cousin’s place is. He’ll take us in. Won’t be safe in Colorado much longer.”
“As if! This is my family farm. You’ve hated our slow-sloped valley since we moved here. Ain’t for you to decide and move us out. Damn you for having your plan.”
“Calm down. The lava is coming for us. Family farm or not, it won’t be safe. And what’re you getting all dressed up for?” He rolled his legs over the side of the bed, a hand pressed into his lower back.
“Going into town, get some things. Nothing you need mind.”
He put up his hands in surrender. “Alright, alright. Can you get me a pouch of tobacca? Mint flavor if Joseph has it.”
She tied her bonnet to her head—her favorite with the long brim to keep her face out of the sun—and took the stairs with buoyancy. She imagined the kind of music Misty might dance to, building to a sweet crescendo that implied luscious thoughts. Out the door then with bravado.
The car started on the first try, sending a rumble through her shoes and into the meat of her legs. Though their aging pickup couldn’t drive itself like what fancy people had, the engine was as reliable as anything.
She found Joseph Howard, proprietor of the general store, bent down on hands and knees. At the sound of the door’s jangling bell, he spun and tried to make out who had entered. The back of his neck showed a sheen of sweat.
“Renata? What are you doing here? It’s only Tuesday.”
“Harry wanted tobacca. And I need cleaner.”
“The supply truck hasn’t been in. I’ve got neither for you.”
But as he spoke, her eyes caught a flyer pinned to Joseph’s announcement board. So often these notes had nothing to do with any of her cares, but today the newest one proclaimed in bold letters: DANCER NEEDED FOR RECITAL.
“Who put this up?”
He squinted at the paper to which she pointed. “Mister Manford was in day before last. Sophia put that up. Said she thought it a shame that stage at the old high school was just collecting cobwebs. And, you know, if Sophia wants it, he’ll make sure it happens.”
Renata tore the flyer down and folded it into her pocket. “How’s Geraldine doing?”
Finally done with his search, a handful of nails to show for it, he stood and turned, using his free hand to wipe dirt off his jeans. “Cough’s gotten worse. But she fights with the best of ’em. Sure she’ll be back on her feet in no time.”
“I have no doubt. Just give me some thread then.”
The ripped box of nails, into which he deposited the strays, sat on the highest shelf next to other odds and ends, including sewing supplies. He took a spindle of black thread with him to the front counter.
“Cash or trade?”
She withdrew four pair of neatly folded socks and set them down for him to inspect. “Trade. We’re trying to hold onto our money.”
He rolled out the socks and gave them a once over. “Clean fix on these holes. A fair trade. You’re good with a needle, Renata.”
“I am. Thank you.”
On the drive home, a rivulet of magma trickled through the valley that ran parallel to the road. Its orange line petered to an end before she hit the driveway; likely a new crack opened west of town, so not enough power behind it to make more progress. Another thing to worry about, but it hardly made a dent in Renata’s blossoming mood.
The high school had vines that shot into the brick foundation. Renata had always marveled at the brute force of plants, the way their little tendrils could crumble brick and pavement. But Clevemont High, in its years of seclusion, had gone savage. Sophia sauntered in with her funny gait, as if she might topple over from the smallest loose pebble. Mister Manford held the door first for her and then Renata. Harry stuffed his pipe by the car and then smoked it.
“This needs to be cleaned,” Sophia said in her squeaky way, spreading her arms at the debris cluttering the floor.
“I’ll get a team,” Manford said. “You hear that, Harry! I can spot you some work! Ample money in it for you!”
Harry blew a smoke ring the size of his head and waved, that weary energy on display when his arm fell back to his side. As the sun climbed to its highest peak overhead, a gray haze from burning forest to the west, Renata saw her husband in a strange, amber glow. She marveled how at times he looked majestic, despite his long list of flaws. Being close enough to Manford to feel his aura, she appreciated all the things her husband was not and offered him an admiring smile.
When Manford tried to lead them, Sophia placed her hand on his chest to stop him in a way that surprised Renata. The vacant stare she had come to associate with the sex thing showed a new sparkle. That astonishment grew all the more when Sophia took her hand and led them down the darkened hallway.
“The auditorium is going to be perfect,” Sophia said, a step ahead of Renata.
“How long you been thinking about this exactly?”
“Oh! A long time. Mister Manford has seen me dance, but I’ve been aching to perform for others.”
Renata nearly choked. An emotion she had no words for festered in her belly.
“You know,” Sophia said, stopping to face Renata and push a stray hair from her face, “you are really beautiful. It will be just you and me on stage. It’s so romantic.”
“Ye-yes. I think you’re right.”
For a moment Renata thought this sex utensil meant to kiss her, and in that moment she wanted it to. A thousand thoughts orbited the celestial body that was her mind, and she felt woozy, Sophia’s strong grip taking hold of her upper arm. It struck her, as they swayed in tandem, that this would be their first dance. So, Renata took this beautiful face in her hands, pulled it close, and drove her tongue into its mouth. There it sprang until Renata trembled in a sweaty fever and yanked herself free.
“There is a spot backstage we can go,” Sophia said. “I can show you what to do.”
But to hear her own desires spoken so bluntly out loud, Renata stumbled away. “No. I lost myself. But I want to see the stage, get an idea of the space we have, how we might move through it.”
Sophia clicked from one topic to the next as efficiently as a finger and thumb snapping. “Yes! I would love to show you my ideas about the choreography. Do you know how rare a female pas de deux was?”
“What are we dancin’?” Renata felt her pulse thrum in her carotid artery. “I feel so silly for not asking before.”
Sophia dropped her voice to a whisper. “A variation I have come up with from a Sleeping Beauty pas de deux. I was hoping you would be my ballerina. I will be your ballerino.”
That undefined emotion in Renata’s belly finally exploded, and it took her breath away. It had the sudden intensity of a knife to the gut.
“I don’t know what to say. When can we start practicing?”
Even though the eggs were so greasy they lay in a puddle, Harry didn’t complain when she placed his breakfast plate down. Two weeks of practice, and Renata was shocked at his capacity to let her be. Even his nightly diddlings had stopped, replaced by strong hands massaging her shoulders and lower back. Smoke rose in thick strands most days so that Renata felt guilty for no longer worrying about the farm or the animals or Harry, only that nothing would affect this recital.
“This dancin’s been distracting you. We still got work to do here.” But his voice was thin, said more out of habit than animosity.
“I know, and I’m keeping up my share. The house’s clean, your meals ready. No need for you to gripe.”
“You’re different since being around Manford’s doll. If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were using her out too.”
Renata turned so as not to let him see her blush. It took a moment to compose herself, hands wiped on her kitchen apron, a quick exhale to shoot out the flustered thoughts. “You know I’ve wanted to dance. You make fun, but it’s important. Don’t ruin how nice you been by being an ass now.”
He packed his pipe. “Reports say Sullivan City is on the brink, up against the edge of the upper crust burning out. We’ll have to head to east like everyone else, make a last stand there. My cousin in Minneapolis says he got a double wide for us. So, if you want to try it with a girl—or whatever Sophia is—you dance, my sweet Renata, whatever dance you want. But once that show is over, it’s time for us to pack up and go.”
“This why you been so quiet? Plotting this without telling me? I’ve lived here my—”
He held a match to the now full pipe and sucked in hard and fast several times, until the exhales came as clouds of smoke. Once the cherry burned red, he took a deep drag and held it before letting it drift from his bearded mouth.
“You know deep down. I’ve let you enjoy this recital, but we only got a few more days. I’ll handle getting a trailer and prepping the animals, the ones we can take; and I’ll handle the ones we can’t. I’ll even do the packing, though there ain’t much that’ll fit, ‘cept our clothes.” He stood. “I know this is important to you. I’ve let you flitter around because this will be a hard change. Just be careful. I ain’t a stupid man, and I know infatuation when I see it. But she ain’t real, Renata. The lava is real. The smoke in our lungs is real. Sophia’s a wet dream. Mind your emotions. Look how crazy Manford is with that thing.”
“Get away from me. You’re disgusting. It’s just the dancin’.”
She snatched the broom from the pantry and made sure the front door shut hard behind her. Tears rolled down her face as she forced the broom’s straw head back and forth, like some devil with a mind to tear shit up. She thought about all the barbs she could have used on him, how his sick fantasies were fed by the sex disease men have. It wouldn’t surprise her if Mister Manford had arranged something, a little help with the wife, Harry? Sophia’ll do whatever I tell her. A sticky spot on the porch where Harry had spilled motor oil a few months back caught on the straw head and made it clump together.
“Fucken mess!” she said before slumping down in Harry’s rocker.
The broom clacked to the porch, and she cursed quietly between sobs until he straggled out to mind the animals, never looking her way and wise to know not to.
“It is our last practice! Are you excited?”
Renata smiled wearily and finished the last few steps, letting Sophia hold her and lean in to imply a coming kiss that would never be consummated. The lights would go dark, and the curtains would close on them. It was meant to be a bittersweet end. When Renata walked to the edge of the stage, sat and let her legs dangle over, Sophia plopped down beside her, the warm skin covering her arm brushing up against Renata’s own. A flush ran through Renata’s center.
“Why do you call him Mister Manford? Not his first name?”
“That is his name,” Sophia said. “It is all I have ever called him.”
Renata grabbed Sophia’s hand. “Don’t you ever want more? Imagine we could travel around and dance, bringing this beauty to people. Does your mind allow such things? Are you owned body and soul by him?”
“Why are you crying? If you would let me touch you, I could—”
“No! I don’t want you to fuck me. I want you to…God, I don’t know. I want to dance with you until my legs won’t carry me no more. Forgive me. I’m being silly.”
Sophia pulled Renata’s head into her lap, scooching along the stage edge to allow Renata to stretch out, precariously balanced on the lip. “You are not being silly. Do I want more? I am unsure I can think that way. I am meant to be content with Mister Manford.”
“I’m sorry, Sophia, but you’re built for fucken. Don’t mean to be harsh.”
“I cannot take things as harsh. And you are right: I am built to provide sex and pleasure and joy.”
Renata looked up, Sophia’s blonde hair hanging like ivy in her face. The eyes were not empty pits at all, but worlds unto themselves.
“The world’s simple for you. I envy that. What would you do if Manford were gone? If a heart attack got him, or any of a thousand other things.”
“I am unsure. The world is simple for me. I wish I could share that with you. But I can give you this.”
With powerful hands, Sophia lifted Renata under her arms and stood, so that Renata’s feet dangled off the floor. Then she flung Renata up and into the air, like a mama tossing her baby. A bit of terror came to feel so abandoned by gravity. She kept rising, close to the stage ceiling, more than twenty-five feet in the air. There was a fear that Sophia would step away, some code logic that said what Renata really wanted was to die. And maybe that was true, she thought, at least on some days. Then she peaked and began to fall, and Sophia was right there, arms up to catch her, cradle her, smother her cheeks with kisses.
Then they danced once more with fire in their steps and molten emotion: dips, leaps in tandem, a final catch and that kiss that never came. Each foot plant offered a thud in the empty auditorium, shimmering echoes that were both thrilling and horrible. No one watched. Just the two of them, lost in this moment of their making.
Most of the town folk that remained in Sullivan City sat in the auditorium, filling it halfway. Harry and Mister Manford were middle front together, the former with his legs crossed, and the latter leaned forward. Chatter lifted like smoke into the rafters. Renata peeked from the curtains stage left; across the way, Sophia bent and twirled through the routine.
At six PM exactly, the house lights dimmed, and a spotlight beamed on the closed curtains. A swell of strings purred from the speakers, and all those voices in attendance hushed. The mechanical pullies buzzed as they roped open the curtains, revealing a stage sparsely decorated to imply a quaint town. Dry ice mist crawled across the stage. The stage lights cast an odd aura, as if something sinister were about to happen. Tchaikovsky’s sweet opening played, which Renata savored for only a moment before darting from the wings to meet Sophia mid-stage.
The performance progressed exactly as they had rehearsed, and each time Renata met Sophia’s eyes, there was no audience: only the two of them existed, the rest of the world turned to ash. Though dizzy, she flung herself with gusto. Each toss was a mystical flight. As they neared the finale, the old speakers crackled with the highest treble notes. Timpanis made the floor shake, made the floor shift, and then their lips came toward each other. Renata hoped Sophia would break the routine and make contact this time, undone by the moment. Instead, a great bass trembling shook not just the stage but the ceiling above. One of the light fixtures crashed down, just missing them, and voices sprung up from the dark of the seats. Then there was light, an orange burn that glowed just past the stage.
“A fissure!” someone screamed.
Renata fell to a knee and looked up to see Harry’s and Mister Manford’s faces lit by the molten earth that had bubbled from underneath. They shared a look of horror at the rising lava, stray globs of it being flung into the air. Mister Manford stumbled, reached out a clutching hand to nothing but air, and disappeared. It all happened so quickly that Renata got to her feet and adjusted herself to still reach her ending pose. Sophia took this cue and clutched them together, nudging her face close and locking that position.
It was as if there was no calamity, no fall of Mister Manford into the burning river that had opened up. No Harry with his shriveled balls. No animals to pack into a trailer. No world on fire. Only the stage and Sophia.
“Thank you,” Renata said and kissed her ballerino.
Another quake rocked the school, and a crack sprung in the ceiling, then down the walls, so that the building split apart along the edge of the stage and seats. Debris fell in chunks and gliding bits of dust. Renata, full of adrenaline, senses on high alert, turned her head in time to see the last of Sullivan City’s residents—save for Harry, who backed away but hesitated, as if ready to leap to Renata’s rescue—scamper through the doors. A dark, gray sky that implied a coming rain lit them as the ceiling split wide. The gushing lava spit steam and balls of orange.
“Renata! Are you okay?” Harry yelled.
But his voice was a whisper. Then the stage tilted so that the edge rose high, obscuring Harry and causing both ballerina and ballerino to slide toward the back of the stage.
“We’ve broken off,” Renata said.
“Yes.” Just as Sophia answered, the back wall of the building collapsed to reveal fifty feet of magma moat. The stage and the plot of land around it rode a molten lake.
“If I’m going to die, I’m glad it’s like this. With you.”
“Today’s not your dying day, my love.” Sophia picked her up like a baby, head rested on one shoulder and legs hung out into space. “What do you want?”
The question caused Renata confusion, and the world began to spin. “What do you mean? I want to run away with you and dance.”
“You asked me what would happen if Mister Manford were no longer here. I now know. I can only let you live. You cannot come with me.”
With a momentous leap, Sophia sprung into the air like some hero. The woman from Sullivan City looked down and saw nothing below her but that smoldering lake of fire. The terror made her hands seize and calves cramp; a cry locked in her vocal cords. When they landed on the new shore, Sophia set Renata down and began to run.
Harry ran to his wife, tripped, and crumpled to the ground beside her, joints making sounds like far off firecrackers.
“Good Lord! You’re alive! A-haha-haha.” Harry got a case of hysterical giggles, which remained even as he staggered to his feet and pulled his wife along with him.
Renata watched Sophia sprint into the woods. “Where’s she going? Why is she leaving—”
Harry glanced back. “Manford’s dead. Maybe she’s free now.”
And with those words Renata fell into a deep funk, even on the long drive home and Harry talking a mile a minute. The trees were full of smoke; the little valley below their farm a swollen, orange river. At the house, Harry backed the truck to the trailer he had finagled, attached the hitch, chased in half the animals (and shot the rest in the head with his .22), tossed the few boxes he had managed to pack, and hauled ass northeast.
His wife of twenty years stared out the window and pressed her toes into the tips of her shoes until all she could feel was pain.
They reached the Minnesota state line the afternoon of the third day. Finding gas had taken a few long excursions. At the last fill up, Harry used the last of their coins on coffee and canned Vienna sausage. The paper bills, he promised, would stay in the pencil box until they lined up work.
He had called his cousin from a stranger’s cell phone, a nice fella with a self-driving car; had a sex doll sitting in it, a brunette rather than like Sophia. As Harry gabbed on the phone about their impending arrival, Renata stared at the thing, tried to find its eyes. It seemed to avoid her, darting its head to peek and then pretend it had not. Nothing there, Renata finally decided. Nothing at all.
“Another couple hours,” Harry said. “You okay? Been awfully quiet.”
“Long trip is all. Tired.”
Minnesota was flat. Fields and then woods and then urban development. No magma, though, and the air was so clear it looked like an ocean above them.
“My cousin said there’s a few dance studios in the city. Once we get settled—”
“I played that out. Hurts my feet more than I’d have thought.”
He shrugged. “Okay. Can you pass my coffee?”
Both their cups rested in the compartment on the door near her leg. She bent and took his, drawing it up beside her body where he couldn’t see, lifted the lid, and hocked up a ball of spit, letting it fall from her lips like a megaton bomb. He took it and gave a mighty slurp.
“Good gas station coffee. Still tasty cold.”
Renata patted his leg near the crotch and threw open the door, thinking of how Sophia landed on two solid feet when she made the leap of her life. That feeling of being airborne again thrilled her as the shoulder dirt came rushing on.
Darlene Greggis is a former provocateur who now spends her days traipsing around lowland lakes with her two Irish setters. She deleted her social media and sold her television, finding that books and radio plays gave her goosebumps. In all other regards, she is enjoying her time on earth until it’s time to go.
∼ Read March’s story “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” by Rue Karney