Notes from the Free Clinic
In Kentucky, I was blue and selfish like a child. We had lost our gloves on the river bank; along with the money and the meth, the memory: a brick house and a basement, must and lights and crying, cars and chairs and very nice ladies. I know we were somewhere else then, somewhere south where it never snowed. That’s what you told me once: It used to never snow. But now we’re here where we watch the curves of black froth twist in the water – sticks and boot rubber and black squirrel hair. My hands sweat in the warmth of your pockets and I watch as yours pin needle in the wind, fingers looking real burnt, real newborn. If I could go back, I would have asked you if it hurt, would have warmed your hands in mine, but as it was, I was little and never thought to ask you much of anything. This would be one of our last winters together. When the black froth fades and the river calms in spring, they will take you away and put you in a special home for very special, angry boys. And I will have dreams of you every night. The memory will come back, and there you’ll be: before the snow, before Kentucky. Hovering above the crib, shushing me through your snaggle-tooth, your chubby hand balancing a cold cup full of cold milk. If I could go back to that winter, I maybe would have touched you a little longer, maybe I would have told you that I don’t think you’re an angry boy at all. But, as it is, I get further from that river every year.
It was late April when Jacqueline had me get naked in the Sock Shop, crowding me in an empty corner, her jacket held up like a curtain. It would be the first of many Sock Shop trips. Even now, when I think back to my time with her, I don’t think of you or the knife or any of that other stuff; what I remember most about Jackie is her tugging at collars and snapping at waist bands as she loudly discussed my underwear size, her orthopedic sneakers bright white on the black, bowling alley looking carpet. On that day, she was tutting loudly about my damn long limbs as I burned brightly behind her jacket. I wasn’t a little kid anymore and it felt wrong to be naked in the middle of the store: my leg hair long and ruffled in the fluorescent lights, the sharp paper tags of dungarees slicing up my thigh. I had grown since the winter, I remember. Even as the temperatures heated up, my bones stayed cold. I cradled my sore elbows on the bus, worried at my knuckles in the bath. I would get swatted at the dinner table for reaching down to rub my shins in the middle of the meal. At night, it would get so bad that I would sneak off to your empty room and go searching for stray clothing – your big jackets, that one holey sweater. My favorite thing, though, was to slip to the ground and fish out socks from under your bed – the old white kind that you never bothered to wash. Sometimes, after finding a sock with my hand, I would just rest there, my cheek cold on the hardwood, the blue light of the lamp post trickling in through the blinds. I remember thinking that to make that last move, to pull the socks from under your bed, would ruin something and if I could just exist there in that nowhere, limbo moment, I could pretend like you never left. Of course, in the end, I always made the last move. I would take your socks back to my bed, double them up on my feet and slip another onto my hands like gloves. The bad smell and the sound of the far-off trains lulled me to sleep every night. Jackie never noticed, or if she did she never mentioned it. She wasted her money that day in the Sock Shop. There was a perfectly good pair of your old jeans in the attic: cleaned, pressed, and folded, packed away in a box with your name on it, but I didn’t want them. I knew there would be no trace of the sweat, the crust, the Cheeto dust, all your dirty things that I missed. It was always the smell of the socks that I loved best.
Now that I’m grown, I think of you most when I’m at the free clinic. The waiting room there is small and cold and windowless, and it reminds me of the rooms at Wolf Creek, where we would sit for hours and wait for that glimpse of you coming down the hall, big and tall in your bright yellow scrubs. There’s something calming about waiting rooms to me now – the hum of phone calls and country voices; the smokey breaths and sugary coffee. The last time I was there, the woman next to me grabbed me by the shoulder and said “Sorry for my breath honey, I just got done smoking outside” and I said “That’s okay it doesn’t bother me” but what I really wanted to say was “That’s okay, I love it,” “That’s okay, you remind me of my brother.” Every time I leave the free clinic, I feel robbed of something. I think of you back on the river bank. You had been shut up in rooms, always, for your entire life – cot after cot after cot – but then there was Kentucky, that winter on the river, a brief shot at something open. Standing in the parking lot, holding papers that break down my blood sugar, I think: If I had to fill the world up with something, it would be the way I saw you in Kentucky, before the rooms and the cots and the wristbands, just a love that lasts for ever and ever and ever.
Lexi Covalsen is a senior at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Georgia. She studies English literature alongside history and creative writing, and also serves as co-editor of the university’s literary magazine, The Tower. Her work has been published in Winter Tangerine Review, Screen Door Review, and Half Mystic.