State Line

State Line

by Ruminate Magazine June 22, 2019

Brooke Fossey's short story "State Line" appears in Issue No. 51: Consume.

________
 
BROOKE FOSSEY
STATE LINE

Mark Pankov had crossed the state line countless times before, but not like this. Not on New Year’s Eve while driving eighty in the dark with the wind slapping his car right off the pavement. If he hadn’t already passed the halfway point, he’d turn around. But he was almost there, and he was late. Not that anyone cared. His dad, Osip, who waited for him on the other side of the border, certainly didn’t keep track of the schedule. Didn’t know the day, the time, the year. According to him, the only thing that could be late was a woman, and if that were the case: Thank God, he’d say. You’ll finally carry on our name. Good for you, eh? Good for me.
     Good for everybody.
     Mark slowed and pulled into the rest stop just on the other side of the Nebraska welcome sign—“the good life”—and parked nose to nose with the big rig nestled in the far northeast corner, like always. It had started to sprinkle an hour before, a friendly shower, but now the downpour pounded on Mark’s moon roof like it wanted in. He hesitated to step outside, to give way to the cold and wet, so instead he squinted at his headlights reflecting off the semi’s chrome grill and waited. Waited until his breath condescended on the windows. Then he shifted into park and waited some more.
     Two other semis idled in the darkness, logging hours of mandated sleep before moving on. One was transporting seafood, the other railroad freight. His father’s was unmarked and transporting nothing. Going nowhere.
     As Mark stared at the metal bulldog perched on his father’s hood, the truck’s air horn blew, rattling his car all the way to the chassis. He returned the sound with a squeak from his sedan. They spoke like this sometimes, similar to Morse code, though they hadn’t worked out what it all meant. They would just honk at each other. Long and short honks, doubles, triples, extended silences. Noise, really, not unlike when they talked in person.
     Soon enough, Osip appeared at the passenger window, hopping around to stay warm and pounding at the glass until Mark unlocked the door.
     He brought the weather inside with him. The wetness, the wind. “Ah, it’s cold.”
     “Dad,” Mark said in way of greeting.
     His dad fought to shake off his jacket. “Like Oymyakon out there and in here: a fire.”
     “Happy New Year.”
     Osip paused, then wrestled to get his other arm out.
     “I brought you dinner,” Mark said.
     “Always I say you don’t have to.”
     Mark shrugged. The promise he made to his mother ran through his head, along with a deep-seated needling that had nothing to do with her at all. “We could go out to eat for once. You know, like normal people.”
     “No. The weather, it’s bad.” Osip grabbed the greasy, brown bag by his feet. “Tell me. The restaurant? How is it?”
     Mark bristled. “It’s grand.”
     “Good.”
     “Feel free to stop by anytime.”
     “Nyet. You’ll be busy, eh? You should be busy tonight.”
     “It’s a burger joint, Dad.”
     “Americans don’t eat burgers to celebrate a new year?”
     The men regarded each other. Mark couldn’t read the lines on his father’s weathered face very well. The creases, no matter their direction, said nothing. Indifference looked too much like interest. Recommendation like reproach.
     The standoff ended when his father peeked inside the bag. “So, then. Who are you kissing tonight? You have someone?”
     A nod. “I’m not staying long. Just checking in.”
     “Pretty girl?”
     “Come see for yourself,” Mark snapped.
     Osip raised an eyebrow, but refused the bait. “You are right. It does not matter. A dog is loyal, no? Only you should not be alone. It is bad for you.”
     Mark shook his head, defeated. “Obviously.”
     Osip waved his hand. “I had your mother, and now I am too old for more.” He raised his burger—double meat, swiss, mayonnaise, Hawaiian bread, just like he liked it. Before he took an oversized bite, he said, “Tonight, I am going to kiss this cow.”
     They sat in silence as he ate, with nothing between them except for the downpour. The rain grated on Mark’s nerves. His father’s chewing did too. The edginess built at Mark’s fingertips and spread until he felt himself wanting to lean over and choke his dad to make him stop. The very man who made him, who gave him the Russian lilt in his speech and the carelessness in his stride.
     To settle himself, Mark tipped his head back. Watched the water sheet across his windshield. Meanwhile, Osip finished the last fry and burped.
     Mark said quietly, “How much longer are you going to do this?”
     Osip gathered his trash. “Do what?”
     “How much longer?”
     “I don’t want to talk again with this. I am happy here.”
     Mark shook his head, turned on his wipers and revealed his dad’s eighteen-wheeler, with its rotting mud flaps and its empty gas tank. He pointed to it. “How could you possible be happy living like this?”
     “To be happy is a secret thing.”
     “Do you mean a personal thing?”
     Osip nodded, like that’s exactly what he’d said, and any confusion was his son’s alone.
     Mark sighed. “Dad, all I’m saying is you can’t spend the next twenty years selling shit at a rest stop while living in your cab. Eventually you need—”
     “I need nothing. That’s the point, no?” Osip wrestled back into his coat and zipped it with finality.
     The rain gained a razor edge. Sleet. It’d be a slow drive home. Mark knew this coming, but he couldn’t keep himself from it. Even making the burger had been an act of masochism.
     His father read this without the words. He said, “Don’t come if you don’t like it. If I make you mad—”
     “I’m not mad.” Which was almost true. Mark was frustrated. He was tired. He was missing his mother who used to intercede for them. Now, with no one between them anymore, the only thing they understood from each other was this certain silence that stretched around them until it was on the cusp of strangling them both. And yet Mark still loved the man. Loved him marrow deep, where it hurt the worst.
     “Go home, before you cannot,” Osip said finally, gesturing out the window.
     Mark nodded. “Leave the trash in here. You don’t have a garbage can anyway.”
     Osip pressed his finger to the glass, pointing toward the rest stop picnic table. “See there? I am not an animal.”
     “Come on, Dad, don’t—”
     The passenger door swung open, inviting in a freezing gust. Osip flipped his jacket hood over his head and stood, blocking the weather with his sturdy frame. He paused as another truck pulled into the lot. The air brakes screamed.
     Mark yelled over the racket, “You have everything you need if it snows?”
     “I have everything to keep me warm but a woman.” Osip peered in. His face took on something between a smile and frown. “Happy birthday, my son.”
     The closing door clipped Mark’s thank you in half, and he watched his father run through the rain to the garbage bin, then straight to his truck. A roar from the semi’s horn followed: a goodbye. Mark shook his head and honked three times before driving slowly back into Kansas, careful to right his car whenever the weather took him off course.


These visits. Osip wished them to stop. They reminded him of his days on the road, days that spanned long enough that while he was gone his son moved from a crib to a crawl to a stand to a run. He’d always thought that once Mark stopped growing, the missed days wouldn’t matter. But here they both were, men, and the time meant more.
     If only it hadn’t been for his wife—his beautiful Vera who stepped onto shore with swollen feet and belly, and asked him with a look to draw from this country as if it were a well. He’d crossed the ocean for her already, why not the continent? So that’s what he did, driving from one end to the other. He saw the skyscrapers, the drive- throughs, the towns carved into mountains, the potatoes gathered by shiny machines. He saw it all, and now he wanted to live and die like he was home. Nothing more, nothing less.
     Mark did not understand this because Vera, may her memory be eternal, had raised him to believe that drawing from the well was living, and so everyday he drew. He drank. He drew again. He was young. Who can blame him? Osip certainly did not, but that was not enough. Mark wanted Osip to join him. To watch. To bless. To help. Like his mother had done. But Osip simply could not. He had his own dream, and to him, dreams were not easily shared.
     With a sigh, he turned on the light and picked up his latest whittling project—a husky—and started at it again, staying away from the details because he didn’t have the patience. His tension fell away into the arch of the dog’s back, the set of his tail.
     The CB crackled, disturbing his peace. “Radio check. Can you hear me?”
     Osip answered at first: “Da.” Then next: “Yes.”
     It buzzed again. “Checking your pillow?”
     “Yes. You?”
     “Yep. Dropped the load in town and deadheading home to see the wife, but I might have to ice-skate there. What about you? Coming or going?”
     Osip considered the half-formed dog in his hand. The signal crackled. “Both.”
     “Oh yeah?”
     “I’m going to sleep, of course.”
     “Ten-four. Thanks for the check.”
     “Good night.” And then, “Sladkikh snov.”
     Osip whittled some more until he gave his thumb a rare slice, then decided he needed rest. He wrapped his injury in toilet paper, drank from his near-empty vodka bottle, relieved himself in his portable toilet, and climbed over his growing pile of wood shavings into his sleeper cab. There, he drew the drapes and slept.


Mark lied. There was no one to kiss tonight. Not unless he counted his restaurant, which wasn’t a huge stretch. It took his time, his money, his autonomy, and he loved her. God, did he love her.
     But she wasn’t putting out.
     Mark’s dad would know this if he came. If he took the temperature of the cold flat-iron grill. If he walked into the fridge and touched the bruises on the tomatoes and the oxidation on the meat. Even if all he did was stand in the center of the restaurant and close his eyes, he’d know because he’d only hear the humming neon “Open” sign, the clattering fans, and the sound of Mark’s breathing as he wiped down laminated menus at midnight on his own fucking birthday.
     Americans did not eat burgers on New Year’s. Not here, anyway.
     Mark tried not to eavesdrop on himself too much when the place was empty like this, because then his lungs would start pulling air at a weird tempo and the space around him would contract and heat up until he was certain the restaurant might fall in on itself like a great black hole, and he’d be sucked in with the baker’s oven decks and the brand-new dish machine. Hell, maybe it’d already happened, and the gravitational pull was so strong that light couldn’t escape, and so everyone who passed his restaurant didn’t see its financed, neon signage even after Mark paid its ungodly electric bill.
     This was the problem: no one came because the restaurant was a rift in space.
     And as for Mark’s dad, he didn’t come because he didn’t care.
     Mark wiped his own fingerprints off the menus while considering this, then stood to prep for tomorrow. Hope sprang eternal every time he thought of the next lunch hour, the next dinner crowd. Shady’s slow pulse hadn’t flatlined yet. Tomorrow would be different.
     Next year would be different.
     Mark promised himself this over and over again, until it became less vague, until it became an oath to see his dad less and make money more.
     It felt like a good resolution, even if only part of it would make his mother proud. But it was said, and therefore set, sealed by the blizzard outside. By the snow on Mark’s windshield and the black ice on the road. In the past, Mark would’ve worried about his dad in this weather, he might’ve even driven back out to get him, but not tonight. Not anymore.


It was not the cold that woke Osip, it was the stillness. His truck had stopped idling at some point during the night, perhaps because of the actuator. The fuel pressure. The transmission. In whatever way, Osip did not plan to step into a blizzard to fix it.     He sat up, spilling his glass, and groped around in the dark for his mittens and fur cap. When the search failed, he fumbled for his flashlight. This proved easier to find, and the beam lit the sleeper cab up in slices. His mini fridge. His bookshelf. His icon. His sawdust pile. The finer wood shavings floated, clogging the air. He’d meant to clean out the cab before the weather came, but his projects consumed him. The mess was good insulation, at least.
     He found his winter wear in an overhead cabinet and turned on the CB to hear about the roads. It was a habit he still had even though he no longer went anywhere. The radio didn’t stir, so he ventured he might have a battery problem. A freezing problem. A real problem.
     Out the window, past the snowflakes that spread out from the corners of the glass like ivy, there was only a deep, glowing white. The kind that looked like it meant to erase you.
     Osip put on his hat, his gloves, found his knife and unfinished dog, and climbed back into bed with the intentions of waiting to get help and whittling to get warm.


During the first twenty-four hours of being snowed in, Mark moped. He mourned the missed opportunity to reopen Shady’s doors. The building needed to breathe, and right now it was suffocating.
     To pass the time, he redeveloped the menu. He ripped out the world map from the encyclopedias he’d inherited from his dad’s dad: his dedushka. In the old rendering, the U.S.S.R. stretched across the page in pale pink. There was no Serbia, no Kosovo, no South Sudan. It didn’t matter though. Mark took a pen and circled the regions: Africa, Americas, Asia, and so on. Inside these warped wrappings, he wrote down ingredients for burger toppings to match. Bok choy instead of lettuce, patties made of fava beans and lentils, feta instead of American swiss.
     Before long, he didn’t feel like he owned a burger restaurant; he owned a mind-blowing concept. Shady’s would be born-again in this new decade, screaming loud and long before inhaling so deep that it would draw in critics and customers alike, until finally managing to pull in the most difficult version of both.
     Not that a visit from Dad mattered, he thought. It most certainly didn’t matter.
     But the excitement of it made it impossible to sleep. At two in the morning, Mark found himself walking tight circles in the kitchen, boiling teriyaki sauce and mixing remoulades, while the weather channel played softly in the background.


Osip had woken to a bleary white that lit up the truck’s cabin, but as the day wore on it had gone inky, reminding him of home. Dusk. His childhood farm. Throwing rocks at the stupid cock that always crowed at the wrong time. Slipping on his father’s boots right after they’d been shed to warm his feet in the toe box.
     Osip stayed in the past for so long he didn’t think to open the truck’s doors so they wouldn’t freeze shut. He didn’t think of what it meant to see the snow layering up, blocking the sun, burying him. He didn’t think until it was too late.
     Once he realized his mistake, he stayed calm. A Russian who could not navigate the cold was not a Russian. After eating a bowl of cereal with slushed milk for strength, Osip spent an hour kicking at the passenger door. The crackling of ice encouraged him until his bad knee throbbed. He had to stop, but he couldn’t be still, so he spent another hour picking at the frozen crevices of the doorframe with his silverware.
     After a few wasted kicks in the third hour, he took a break. The pain in his knee had traveled to his hip, and he couldn’t feel the bent fork pinched between his pink fingers. So, he wrapped himself in his comforter, with his hands tucked under either armpit and his breath blowing out in factory-stack puffs, and he stared at his whittling knives beside him, which glinted in the blue light, untouched during his attempted escape.


In the evening, on the second day of Snowmageddon, Mark’s neighbor knocked on his door. She’d run out of toilet paper, of all things, and stood on the welcome mat asking for a roll while twirling a dark ringlet of hair at her neck.
     Mark hadn’t showered in a few days, hadn’t spoken to a soul during his frenzy, hadn’t slept. He was embarrassed by his state. By the state of his apartment. If it had been anyone else, he might not care. But his neighbor had these wide eyes and a wide smile and wide hips. And her name was Bailey. Bay-lee. It wasn’t a family name. Not a saint’s name. It was a nothing name. An American name. And he liked the way it rolled off his tongue. That’s why he always said it whenever he passed her in the stairwell.
     Hi, Bailey. We’re the only one’s awake, Bailey. Just you and me, Bailey.
     That last ones were often true because, like him, she left for work at the crack of dawn while the rest of the building slept. On her way by him, she’d raise her smoothie and say things back like, Let’s do it to it, Pankov. And then she’d trot off, leaving Mark without the opportunity to get the door for her.
     But today he most certainly had the door for her, and so with apologies for things she had yet to see, he invited her in. She waited in the foyer, arms crossed, while he retrieved his last roll from under the bathroom sink.
     “Smells amazing in here,” she called. “Have you been cooking?”
     “Burgers.” Mark rounded the corner, roll in hand. “Here you go.”
     She raised it in way of thanks. “Burgers? I thought I smelled curry.”
     “Oh, it’s just . . .” Mark pointed to the dirty counter, “it’s this thing.”
     “Yeah?” She walked to the kitchen without invitation and peered into a pot of simmering sauce. “What kind of thing?”
     He entered, picking up dirty dishes along the way. “It’s a restaurant thing.”
     She looked up, her face glistening from the heat. “Are you a cook?”
     “Chef, actually . . . and owner. My place is called Shady’s. It’s a few blocks from the hospital?”
     Her brow knit and she shook her head. Looked at the tower of pans in the sink.
     “It’s getting a new menu,” Mark offered.
     She turned to him. Marginal interest had turned into investment. “Do I get a sneak peek today?”
     Before he could answer, she stuck the tip of her pinky into the sauce. Mark found himself holding his breath to hear the results of the first official taste test. His mother used to do this for him, with a good mix of love for him and objectivity toward his food. This time, he assumed he’d only get the benefit of the latter.
     Bailey closed her eyes, lips around her finger like a lollipop, and hummed in appreciation. At that moment, Mark was certain there had never been, nor ever would be, a more beautiful woman than this. This was the kind of woman he would want to make late. The kind of woman who he understood completely even though she hadn’t said a word.
     She smirked, finger still dangling from the corner of her mouth. “All I’ve got at home is granola and two bottles of wine.”
     It was the most obvious gift—an offer for him to make an offer—except he stood there stupidly for a minute. He didn’t date much because of Shady’s, but Bailey had officially stepped into view, with that mouth. That gorgeous mouth that housed ten-thousand taste buds or more. Not to mention that she worked for a private equity firm.
     Investors. Spenders. Franchisers.
     God bless America.
     “Let me grab a quick shower and I’ll make you something,” Mark said.
     “You don’t mind?”
     “I’ve got cabin fever.” He stretched with both arms up, flexing to the best of his ability. “Plus, I’ve got prawns that I need to cook today.”
     She smiled. “I’ll grab the wine.”


Osip could no longer see his breath. He could no longer will the shaking to stop. He had put on all three pairs of his pants, every shirt, all of his socks. But the tremors would not stop.
     His vodka was gone. The five-gallon water in his truck had frozen solid. He’d cut open the plastic container with his whittling knife and shaved off chips, but sucking on ice eventually became a necessity he could no longer force himself to do. A small blessing: his thirst went away in time. His only feeling became a cold that felt hot. Like he had jumped into an ice hole in Yakutsk.
     Sometimes he would hear things. He heard his mother singing, which he knew could not be. He also heard passing cars. Traffic. Air horns. The noises that had kept him company for so long. But in time they faded away, because in truth the roads would not flow until the thaw.
     His shaking finally slowed. He looked at his still hands and reminded himself they were his, even though he could not feel them anymore. He actually could not feel anything, and this void seemed fine, considering.


Gluttony. Alcohol. A warm fire. Some odd combination of this, plus baking and whisking and tasting, resulted in Mark pressing Bailey’s bare ass to the cold glass of his balcony door while she made all the same sounds she’d made while eating dinner.
     His palm kept sliding down the glass as he tried to get leverage, the air condensing on contact.
     “Sweet Jesus,” she moaned, and Mark agreed with a grunt, because he thought he might be seeing God too.
     After, while they were rolled up in bed, she turned to him, and from inches away, asked, “So, do you have any family?”
     He kissed her instead of answering, hoping to delay the inevitable. Hoping that like his mother, Bailey could make sense of it for him when it came time.


Osip could only think of one word now, and he gouged it out in painful lashes, all letters finished except for the Y. He stilled his hand at the top of the letter, and striped his knife down like he was peeling a potato. He sliced his palm, though he didn’t notice until the blood seeped onto the balsa wood. He smeared it away with his thumb, leaving it like a stripe of paint. Then he held the piece at arms length.
     He was proud of it. Proud of his son. He had always wanted to make Mark see this, but he hadn’t known how. And now things were ending just as Osip wished: quickly, with his mother singing to him, with his icon in reach, with nothing to give or take from this world. But it suddenly wasn’t enough. Osip wished also for Mark to join him.
     To watch. To help. To bless.
     He could feel his breath leaving, only enough to say a prayer. “A hard lesson, good teacher,” he wheezed in Russian, making the remaining amends in his head. When Vera sat beside him, he whispered his final word, “Amen.”


On day five, the travel ban lifted. Mark watched from his bed as Bailey collected her toothbrush and her hairbands and her hot-pink bra. He had the most inspired week of his life, the best birthday. His dad hadn’t been on his mind at all, except for one fleeting moment during his hot shower when he considered checking on him.
     But no. This morning Mark planned on stopping at the farmer’s market to buy ingredients, and then on to Shady’s for its grand reopening.
     Bailey had promised to bring her colleagues. She worked in the tallest building downtown, which also happened to house the staff writers for the local newspaper. She knew the food critic, sighting a few trips on the elevator with him, and promised to point him in Shady’s direction. She also promised Mark dinner at her place tonight, and she made him promise not to be late.
     Mark walked her to the door, picking up the things as they fell from her jumble. A shoe, a pair of dirty underwear, the half-used roll of toilet paper. When they kissed goodbye, he lingered with her lip between his teeth, after which she went on her way.
     Mark, for his part, whistled as he dressed and sped to the market, only to find the shelves empty thanks to the snow. He bought what there was, telling himself it didn’t matter. Nothing would stop him. Today was the day.
     His skip slowed when he arrived at the restaurant though. There was a policeman waiting at the door, and he was looking between something in his hand and Shady’s sign propped along the roofline.
     “Can I help you?” Mark asked, inching closer.
     The policeman—Officer Mitchell—held up a tiny wooden piece. “I knew I’d seen this before.”
     The object looked both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. It was the logo of his restaurant made from balsa wood. Mark stared at it, not understanding.    
     “There’s a bunch more where this came from. Different kinds. Sheep. Bear. Buildings. This was the one he was holding, though. Do you happen to know who made it?” Officer Mitchell said.
     “Yes,” Mark said, though the word pitched up like a question.
     “Got a name for me?”
     Mark dropped his full grocery bags to his side. “My dad.”
     “Oh.” Officer Mitchell’s mustache straightened, his brows pitched down. “I think, then, you oughta to come with me.”


Mark Pankov had crossed the state line countless times before, but not like this. Not while driving through the melt on a Tuesday morning while sitting in the passenger seat of a police cruiser.
     Officer Mitchell talked all the way there, inquiring if Mark knew how to whittle like his father. It’s amazing, he said. You should see the work. And Christ, there’s so many. Your father was busy.
     Mark said nothing while spinning the wooden logo in his hand, and spinning the last five days around in his head. He couldn’t swallow as he thought of what had happened while he lay by the fire. While he ate and drank and wanted for nothing except to see his dad less and make money more.
     Another cop car greeted them as they pulled into the parking lot, along with a morgue truck. Everyone stood in the snow, still a foot deep here, peering into the bowels of the open semitrailer.
     In order to join them—to see this collection that Officer Mitchell swore was the greatest of mankind—Mark had to duck under the police tape. In that moment, the sun broke through a cloud and lit up the contents of his father’s trailer, and inside there were thousands of figurines, a lifetime’s worth of work. Mark gripped the very last production, squeezing it tight enough to draw blood. And then he broke down, crying fat tears that wouldn’t stop, like he was a child again.
     Officer Mitchell pulled him into a bear hug, patting him unnecessarily on the back.“He was thinking of only you at the end, son. He loved you . . . he loved you.” And he kept saying it over and over, without any knowledge of the fact.
     Even so, this was how Mark would come to understand it, to believe it. Not in Shady’s arms, not Bailey’s, nor his mother’s, but in burly Officer Mitchell’s clutch. Officer Jason Mitchell. A man with blonde hair and blue eyes who smelled of eggs and pound cake. A man with a southern drawl and a starched shirt. Jason. Jay-son. A man sent by God, but made entirely in America.

________

Brooke Fossey is a native Texan and the immediate past president of DFW Writers’ Workshop. Her debut novel, The Big Finish, is forthcoming in 2020 from Penguin/Berkley (US), and Piper/Pendo (DE).

View and read the other art, stories, and poems from Ruminate's Issue 51: Consume.




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