HOW TO LEAVE A MARK
DEVAN COLLINS DEL CONTE
(For the Record)
It goes like this:
It’s 2005 at the Summer Drive-in theater, and Emmy’s outside by herself. She arranges the staging area outside the lobby. It’s dark but she sees by the streetlights that dot the parking lot and by the glow through the lobby windows. The grimy white movie screens loom in a loose arc around—blind and distant eyes. She plugs a floodlight into the extension cord that trails through the lobby door, and a yellow beam pours over a card table. It illuminates a cookie sheet with a dark patina and a giant wine glass that catches the light and throws it back. There’s a bucket of baseballs on the sidewalk and a lumpy plastic bag beside it. Emmy walks around and grazes each of these things with the tips of her fingers and says to herself, This is how Ramona touches her hair before she leaves for a date, a charm to hold everything in place. Emmy’s stomach tightens in excitement. Behind Emmy’s set, a bare bulb flickers over the door to the women’s restroom and Emmy reaches up to unscrew it. She examines the shadows on the table and adjusts the angle of the floodlight. Perfect.
Emmy’s Nana sold the drive-in theater almost a month ago and moved from Memphis to an assisted-living center in Louisiana. The apartment above the theater lobby has been Emmy’s home for fifteen years, the fields of barren asphalt, the hillocks that tilt the cars toward the screens, the storage room of projection reels and sugary food that left her, for years, always a little buzzed and and always a little pudgy. Emmy is glad her Nana gets to rest. She remembers when she first moved here as a little girl, watching her Nana open plastic compartments in the morning and scoop pills into her mouth: tablets and capsules with bands of colors and numbers like secret codes. Emmy would watch her, and then she’d swallow hard candies whole and pretend they were her own medicine. She’d watch her Nana nap and Emmy would tell herself rules for making sure her Nana would wake up: do not touch the phone in the office; do not hide behind cars to hear the wet sounds of teenagers kissing; do not climb the ladders on the sides of the screens; do not talk about Mom and Dad; do not talk about Wendy. Sometimes Emmy has nightmares: thick violet pulses of light and sound that ache in her eardrums—the smell of turpentine, her Nana’s voice. She guesses these are memories of the car wreck, the hospital, but they could just as easily be nothing at all.
Emmy adjusts the camcorder on a tripod to the right of the floodlight. She will drive to Louisiana tomorrow to see her Nana. Then twenty hours to Tucson where she’ll teach high school art classes. She’ll live in an apartment complex with clean white walls and empty, odorless air that tells her nothing about anything. She looks at her watch, an old Timex of her dad’s. It reads nine forty-five. All day, Emmy has checked her watch relentlessly, jotted notes on her forearm in Sharpie, taken snapshots of nothing, because today is the last time for so many things. Emmy knows she’ll forget most of them, surely, inevitably, but she’ll remember the rainbow smears on her forearm, the click and hum of the polaroid, she’ll remember some stuff. She strokes the handle on the lobby door, the film of sweat and sugar and years slipping passed. She pushes the door open and sees Mason setting up concessions. He asks if she wants popcorn.
“Extra butter,” she says. She goes behind the counter and selects a box of Zours from the glass display. Movers boxed up the food when her Nana left and the theater closed, but she and Mason went to Walgreens earlier and stocked up on the theater boxes. They brought the microwave down from the apartment and set it up in the lobby for a dramatic reenactment: a bag of Orville Redenbacher whirs in circles in orange microwave light. Outside, it starts to rain.
“Where’s Ramona?” Emmy says.
“On the way.”
“Kevin?” she asks.
“He’ll be here ten-thirtyish, when he gets off work.”
“I hoped he’d bail.” Emmy sucks the coating off the gelatin capsule of a Zour. “It’s good I guess though. He’ll be the processor.”
“Why don’t you just tell him you’re done with him?”
Emmy shrugs. “He’ll figure it out once I’m gone. And I need him for tonight.”
She leans her head on Mason’s shoulder, pushing his blond curls out of her way. The rain ripples down the windows and distant thunder rolls across the lot. When it rains, the musty smell that permeates the air of the drive-in grows stronger. Emmy practices missing it.
The timer on the microwave sounds.
“Let’s start without them,” Emmy says.
(Or maybe it went like this): Ramona was getting ready to meet them at the theater for Emmy’s last night in town. She was going because Mason had asked her to come, had used the word need, and the truth was that while Emmy was great—Emmy was fun and things happened when you were with her, but she was also selfish and, let’s face it, kind of a bitch—Ramona loved Mason from the soles of her feet to her eyes, which brimmed and overflowed for him. She loved him in a way that was embarrassing for everyone, she knew. But still, she couldn’t help but wonder if tomorrow morning might be the moment, if in the glow of dawn, as the taillights of Emmy’s moving truck faded away, he might look at her like he once had. Like he had when Ramona moved in next door to him and they met for the first time. They had been nine then, colt-thin and clean and he had wanted to know her.
Ramona’s family had just moved from the outskirts of Philadelphia to Memphis. When she stepped out of the cab of her dad’s truck the air filled her lungs like warm mist and stopped her short. Surely this was not how it would be all summer, she thought. Damp settled over her face. The new house was a cottage with an off-kilter porch, and it was smaller than it looked from the pictures. In the next door’s front yard, a boy, Mason, squatted over a sprinkler, the spray billowing up around his shorts. A toddler sat in the grass beside him, holding its hand out to the water. The boy looked up and caught Ramona’s eye.
“It’s hot,” he said, and opened his mouth to say more, but Ramona spun around and got her duffel off the front seat, disgusted by the whole of everything. She tucked her pillow that smelled like car ride under her other arm, climbed the porch steps, and stomped inside.
“It’s hot,” she said, when her dad came out of the kitchen. He hit the power button on a window unit. It rattled and a wave of musty air whooshed over Ramona’s face.
“Mom’s house has central air,” said Ramona.
Her dad nodded and walked away. The next day Ramona sat on the porch sulking until Mason came outside and introduced himself. Then they were friends. They slept at each other’s houses, falling asleep on the living room floors in the blue glow of the television, limbs reaching for each other.
Ramona brushed mascara across just her upper lashes—subtlety was key—and slipped her legs into black cigarette jeans, pulling a sweatshirt over her head and letting it hang off one shoulder. She glanced in the mirror on her way out the door, and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear.
Ramona flicked on her windshield wipers. They needed to be replaced and she could barely see through the smeared rain. She waited for traffic to pass, wondering what it was exactly that she was supposed to be doing tonight. All she knew was that Emmy needed to sort through a bunch of video tapes before she left. Some unfinished project from art school that just had to be completed in Memphis if it was going to be “authentic,” if it was going to have “a localized center of gravity.” Emmy had told her so in paragraphs-long texts. But no real information on what that meant Ramona had to do, which was typical: Emmy didn’t frame things in terms of other people.
Ramona drove down a sad back road to the driveway: a pole with a marquee at the top, a model Volkswagon spinning above it. The robotic arm of the gate had been left up for her. Ramona inched past the ticket booth, peering inside. There was a clean square of vinyl where the register had been, a pen with no cap that had probably dried out already. Emmy used to bring Ramona and Mason here after closing, when she was sixteen and they were thirteen. They’d smoke stolen cigarettes and huff glue out of paper bags. Ramona felt an odd nostalgia for the nausea, for the three of them curled up on themselves in a swirl of claustrophobia and loneliness. Emmy had come into their lives like a storm and made Ramona boring.
Ramona drove down a chute of aluminum siding that led to the different screens. The chutes creeped her out, like a shantytown labyrinth, big red signs labeled EXIT pointing directions in which you couldn’t actually drive. As soon as you got on the property you drove into a fog of stink that filled your eyes and mouth. Ramona couldn’t imagine growing up here with just an angry sick old lady, stranded. She parked. The orange and white face of Emmy’s U-Haul stood out against the dirty brick of the lobby, the blue paint of the awning faded to grey, a bright light with moths fluttering around it. The smell was stronger here.
Ramona wrapped the sleeve of her sweatshirt around her hand and pushed open the sticky lobby door.
“Hello?” she said. The door hissed closed behind her. The lobby looked like a body after an organ harvest: everything stripped to the shell with messy pieces left behind. Faded linoleum like greying skin. A few boxes of candy collapsed on their sides under the counter. A microwave, door hanging open, perched on top of the popcorn machine like a parasitic twin. A few movie posters leaning against the walls, like they thought they too were going somewhere when Emmy left. Like they thought they weren’t disposable.
Ramona reached behind the counter for a box of Milk Duds (her favorite). There was a Post-it on them with Emmy’s handwriting on it:
Emmy’s room upstairs is empty except for a few lawn chairs, a beanbag chair, a cooler, five white milk crates lined up against the wall, and a TV. A ceiling fan with brass fixtures spins and clicks. For fifteen years, Emmy has fallen asleep watching that fan, the glow from her lava lamp glancing off the brass, her watch ticking lazy seconds in her ear.
The walls and floors are covered in red carpeting that tints the light and stands out through the white diamond weave of the milk crates. The crates are filled with VHS tapes, strips of masking tape stuck to their sides, labeled in neat black print.
“Where do you want to start?” Mason says.
He’s jittery, rubbing his hands together, making Emmy nervous. “Second crate,” she says. “Then move left. I finished the first one last night. Here,” she says and hands him a mirror with lines of white powder cut across it. He bends over and takes two bumps, wipes his nose with the back of his hand and settles, slumped against the wall. Emmy lifts a crate and sets it beside him.
Mason flips through the tapes, and grabs one labeled City Thrift 3/1995.
Emmy plugs in the TV—white with rabbit ears and a built-in VCR. She got it for her ninth birthday. “I know you miss them,” Nana had said. She’d given Emmy a box of home movies of her with her parents and sister, and left Emmy alone the rest of the night. Emmy had watched them through once, then crushed them, put the pieces in the lobby trash can. Years later, she’d still find little shards of black plastic behind her bed.
Emmy has been collecting video tapes from thrift stores and garage sales for six months. She’s rummaged through cabinets in strangers’ dens, gone hunting at parties like she’d once dug through bathrooms for pills. She was looking for a perfect, immortalizing moment. Then the processor, Kevin, would eat the film, shit it into the wine glass, and she’d finish the project that Memphis College of Arts had vetoed: the thesis of her Memphis life. When she’d drawn up the plans her professor had handed them up with a scribbled note: You are not as clever as you think.
Mason nods, turns the lights off and slides the tape into the TV. Static scrolls down and around, over the picture: a polar bear in a scarf, his paw wrapped around a glass Coke bottle, guzzling sugar and bubbles. There are footsteps on the stairs outside Emmy’s room and the door opens; a wedge of light shines into the room, and there is Ramona, backlit and rail-thin.
“Hi,” Ramona whispers.
Emmy holds a finger to her lips and Mason points at the lawn chair beside him. Mason slides the mirror behind a crate and out of Ramona’s line of sight.
The screen goes black and white credits play. Joe Cocker sings “I get by with a little help from my friends.” A montage of the moon landing, a kid in his backyard, choppers in Vietnam. The fan above them rattles and shakes.
“It’s The Wonder Years,” says Mason. “Series finale.” He pulls a pack of cigarettes out of his jacket pocket, shakes one out and lights it. “Fast forward?” he says. “I’ve seen it, there’s nothing good.”
“You can’t smoke in here,” Emmy says, as though it matters anymore. Mason flips her off and Emmy holds out a hand for one instead. She pushes the little arrow button below the VCR slot and the show jerks past, then into a Star Trek episode and then just static.
Mason fishes a beer from the cooler and cracks it open.
At first, Emmy didn’t want to fast-forward at all, but she changed the rules when she realized how many of the tapes were just recordings of old TV shows. Nothing original. She needs to find the right moment before she leaves and the theater’s leveled.
The screen goes blue, and the rewind hums on.
“How many of these have you watched?” Ramona says.
“That was the first,” says Emmy. “You didn’t miss anything.”
Mason tosses a beer to Ramona and curls up on the bed, lifting his drink in a one-sided toast. Emmy selects another tape.
“It really wasn’t the virgin thing,” Emmy says. They’ve gone through five tapes, half a pack of smokes and a six-pack of Milwaukee’s Best. “I could handle the no sex, I think, but Kevin’s kind of a pussy, and he’s really into like, health food. When we’d go to bed, I’d want him to leave so I could watch porn and eat candy.” She opens another beer. “He kept calling me an angel.”
Ramona snorts and lights a cigarette. Emmy’s lying with her head in Ramona’s lap while Ramona combs her fingers through Emmy’s hair and gives her shivers.
“Intimacy issues,” Mason says.
“Pots and kettles,” says Emmy.
“There!” says Ramona. She hits the faulty pause button a few times, then rewind.
Emmy hasn’t been watching the screen and she sits up, a wave of heat washing over her, a tingling that spreads from between her legs to to her fingers and toes. She sighs contentedly and works on focusing her eyes. The picture shudders and slides backwards; a man scuttles across the bottom of the screen. In the background a carousel spins in reverse, a dragon bobs up and down, and some kid sucks his words back in.
Ramona hits play and ups the volume and calliope music plays.
“Why does this look so familiar?” Emmy says.
“It’s Liberty Land,” says Mason. “Look, there’s Alpine Slopes.” He points at a ride barely visible in the background. “I loved that ride. It, uh, would go backwards and your stomach would like—” He holds out his arms like he’s bracing himself.
Emmy watches Mason watch the screen, the light reflecting off his eyes.
“What’s Liberty Land?” says Ramona. “An amusement park,” Mason tells her, not taking his eyes off the TV. “They tore it down a couple years after you moved here.”
“How come we never went?” says Ramona, and no one answers.
Emmy thinks: It’s the carousel. Gold enamel, pink seed-bulb light, a zebra’s bared teeth and turquoise reins, candy-slick and shining. But no, it’s the boy on the dragon, hands white-knuckled on the golden pole that juts from the base of the dragon’s spine. The man tracking across the screen, grim-faced and cut off at the chest, tonguing cotton candy off a paper cone. “Yeah.” She drops the butt of her cigarette in an empty beer can and looks at Mason, who remains transfixed by the screen. “It could be this.”
A knock at the door, and Kevin comes in, his khaki jacket splattered with rain, bangs plastered and stringy across his forehead. “What’d I miss?”
“Should we put it in food?” says Ramona.
“What do you mean?” says Emmy.
“Like, mix it with some peanut butter or something to help it go down?”
Mason shook his head. “He’ll choke. My dog always always gags when I give him too much peanut butter.”
“I don’t have any anyway,” said Emmy. “Just ball it up tight.”
They’re outside, squinting in the harsh floodlight, breathing the musty not-quite-urine, not-quite-mold smell.
“Are you sure it’ll pass in time?”
“No,” says Emmy. “Well, I’d bet by morning it will for sure. I’d rather it still be dark. This’ll help.” She holds up the plate of steamed veggies and a jug of juice she brought out with them, she has two dulcolax in her pocket but she wants to introduce those gently, preserve Kevin’s pride a little.
“So what’s the plan here exactly?” says Ramona.
“He eats the tape, passes it into the glass and then we fill up around it,” says Emmy.
“Fill it with what?” says Ramona.
“With whatever. Liquids. Fluids. Follow your heart”
Kevin frowns and steps back. Folding his arms over his chest, he leans against the door to the women’s restroom. He tries to catch Emmy’s eye, but she avoids it, making sure the glass is centered on the cookie tray. She filled the glass halfway earlier and Sharpied on a hash mark, and now she turns it so the line won’t show on the tape. “Then we throw the balls,” she says, indicating the bucket of baseballs beside the table. The light will wash them all out. She doesn’t think the tape will show too much clearly, except the glass breaking. She tears a plastic bag open with her teeth. It’s full of pink, naked king cake babies. She spreads them on the cookie sheet at the base of the wine glass. “They’ll be inundated.” She had copied the tape before giving Kevin the original, hadn’t yet decided whether to combine the footage once all was said and done.
Ramona leans against the door to the lobby next to Kevin, folding her arms. “I don’t get it.”
“Yes, you do,” says Emmy, heaping some of the babies into one corner of the tray. “You just don’t like it.” Her skin doesn’t feel like the right-sized skin. She motions with a finger for Kevin to come over, and hands him the wadded up strip of magnetic tape from her pocket.
He drops it into his mouth like a pill—gags and snorts, then coughs it back out. “I can’t.”
“Here,” says Emmy. She hands him a half-full beer. “Try again.”
Kevin chokes it down. His eyes fill and water. “And now?”
“We wait,” says Emmy. In Kevin’s gut, the carousel and the dragon and the little boy and the grim-faced man are churning, beginning to dissolve. She wonders if they knew each other, if the man had gotten cotton candy for his kid and was on his way back to him, about to hitch on a smile when the camera cut off. Emmy’s fingertips tingle. “Let’s climb one of the screens,” she says. “I want to be up high.” She hands Kevin the tray of veggies. “Get this down first though.”
“I think I’m gonna throw up,” says Kevin.
“That could work too,” says Emmy. “But it’s not my preference.”
The rain has slowed to a drizzle and the rungs of the ladder on the side of the screen are coated with slick grime, like roads wetted after a drought.
“I feel really sick,” says Kevin.
Emmy pats his shoulder and tells him there’s Sprite in the apartment if he wants to go back for it. He shrugs her off.
The climb is pretty easy. Ramona slips once but catches herself. She asks what exactly they’re doing and Mason tells her to shut up, but he sounds uncertain too, and slurry, and Emmy starts to feel itchy and agitated with both of them. Finally they hoist themselves onto a ledge at the top of ladder, Mason gripping Emmy’s hand and forearm, pulling her up behind him. They sit. They catch their breath.
Emmy can see the interstate and the flashing colored lights of the Gold Club, the shadow of the bouncer by the entrance and the boisterous groups of men filing in with pockets full of singles. On the other side of the highway, a back street dead-ends into a Baptist church. The scent of the drive-in doesn’t reach this high. Instead it smells like rain and gas fumes from the traffic roaring by, looping the city, their taillights melting into a red-yellow stream.
“It’s sort of beautiful up here,” says Kevin.
Emmy turns her head as far as she can in either direction, scanning the panorama, back and forth, back and forth, until her vision blurs and the world tilts and she remembers spinning in the front yard of her first house, hands clasped around her sister Wendy’s, both of them leaned back, their faces the only clear thing in a nauseous swirl. Kevin grabs her shoulder, and she lists to one side, bumping shoulders with Mason.
“Stop it,” Kevin says. Emmy tries to remember if Kevin has any brothers or sisters. Which direction his house is. Water hangs in the air and sinks into their clothes, clings to Emmy’s eyelashes.
Mason slumps to one side and Ramona shakes him, speaks sharply to him. Without talking about it they start back down, Kevin going first and complaining of stomach cramps, Emmy following behind, then Mason, then Ramona. The rain picks up as they climb, and Emmy worries about Mason, who’s gone glass-eyed and wobbly.
Ten feet from the bottom Emmy feels a reverb through the ladder and hears Kevin’s land with a yelp. “Shit,” she says. She worries the fall will make him puke and hurries down the rungs, jumping a few from the bottom. “Are you ok?”
Kevin sits up, and nods, ashen-faced. He holds his left arm across his chest. “I think I broke my arm,” he says.
Ramona and Mason hop down beside them and Ramona tells Kevin to hold his arm out for her to look at. She has lifeguard training, she says. She takes his arm in her hand and asks him to do different things with his fingers and they all watch his face go grey. “He needs to go to the ER,” Ramona says.
“I can’t leave,” says Emmy, looking from one of her friends to the next, feeling the desperation on her own face. “I don’t have enough time.”
Ramona glares at her and Kevin avoids her eye. Mason rubs the back of his hand over his nose and sniffs, rocking from foot to foot.
Ramona stares at Mason for a second like she’s hoping he’ll meet her eye. “I’ll take him,” she says. She tells Kevin she’ll be right back and stalks back to the lobby for her keys. Mason offers to help Kevin to Ramona’s car but Kevin waves him off, struggles to his feet and walks away.
Mason snorts and hawks a pasty loogie.
Look. It’s like this: Emmy watches Kevin walking slouch-shouldered and head down through the parking lot, his clothes wet and patchy, the yellow light from the staging area wavering over puddles. And a year later she’ll be home for a wedding and see him and his kid (that she didn’t know about) at the grocery store and they’ll nod at each other, Emmy’s hand frozen on a box of Easy Mac. And this moment—the parking lot, Kevin’s splotchy receding figure, her dim sense of Mason wavering beside her, and the warming knowledge that Ramona was inside, in her home—it will slam into Emmy like a crashing wave. She’ll go back to her friend’s shabby apartment and sleep like death.
Kevin’s by the car, looking like he might puke, and Emmy turns away from him. The lobby door opens and closes. Ramona passes by without a word. She helps Kevin into her Honda.
Emmy wipes her nose and swallows down the bitter taste in the back of her throat. She stares at the EXIT sign and thinks of Kevin riding away with her carousel. Her stomach clenches with regret. She wonders how long it takes for the film to be digested, what it looks like during. Gone, all at once? Or a creeping dissolution, a filigree of moments, attenuated till they break?
“I guess I should get going, too,” says Mason.
Emmy turns, stands on her tiptoes, and kisses Mason’s head, tucks a strand of hair behind his ear. “No,” she tucks her face into the crook of his neck and feels his pulse flutter against her nose. “Come upstairs,” she says. “Stay here.”
At the emergency room it’s like: an awkward date that neither of them wants to be on.
“You can go,” Kevin says, holding his arm protectively across his chest.
“No,” says Ramona. The plastic chairs of the waiting room have filled up around them with a variety of people making a variety of bodily noises. There’s a steady stream of people coming in with only the tiniest trickle being called back through the double doors. “Are you sure?”
“Yeah, who knows how long they’ll keep me waiting. I’ll call my mom if I need to.”
“If you’re sure…” Ramona stands and puts her bag over her shoulder.
“Yeah, I’ll just call my mom.” Kevin looks down at his injured arm as though for comfort.
“Okay, well, bye.” Ramona waits for him to meet her eyes and finally he does.
“Are you going back?” he says.
“No,” says Ramona. “Well, maybe. Yes.”
He nods and looks back at his arm. Ramona heads toward the automatic doors and pauses, turns. “Kevin,” she says. Her eyes flick toward the bathrooms of the waiting room. “You don’t think—”
His eyes widen like she slapped him and his face contorts in fury—disgust. Ramona nods and leaves.
When she gets back, Ramona finds the set abandoned, the floodlight shining pointlessly over it. The door to the lobby is unlocked. She makes her way carefully upstairs to Emmy’s room and eases the door open. They’re asleep across Emmy’s bed, both of them, touching in a way that looks accidental. A mirror of white powder is tucked against the wall, the junk they both swore they quit. Ramona slips out of her clothes and into bed with them, nudging her arm under Emmy’s and around her soft body, throwing a leg across Mason’s, memorizing the feel of them and the smell. Emmy opens her eyes and makes a humming sound when she sees Ramona, her breath sugary and damp. She pulled Ramona closes and kisses her forehead, falling back into sleep. But Ramona can’t settle, she lies there waiting for some unnamed thing, thinking of the set downstairs, too easily abandoned. The room smells like warm bodies and smoke and popcorn and there are no windows for the sun to find them. Finally, after who knows how long, listening to the constant tick of Emmy’s watch in her ear, Ramona nestles deeper into the bed, buries her face in the crook of Emmy’s neck, and sleeps.