Lit Thursday: Whiskey & Ribbons

Read an excerpt from Leesa Cross-Smith's debut novel.

Lit Thursday Whiskey  Ribbons

At first Dalton wouldn’t kiss me back. He stopped playing and looked at me.

“Evangeline,” he said.

Sometimes I was Evangeline. Evi. Sometimes, Leeny or Evangeleeny. I was never only E. Eamon was E.

Dalton said my name. I said nothing.

I kissed him again.

He was a sublime kisser once he kissed me back. His kiss was a song. The piano started playing itself with the small of my back, the apple curve of my ass as Dalton repositioned us. Adagio, discordant. I was well-trained in classical ballet, taught it to tiny girls and boys who smelled like baby powder and oatmeal, but no — there was no grace here.

I was kissing Dalton Berkeley-Royce in the house I used to live in with my husband Eamon. I was kissing Dalton, my brother-in-law, my friend. Only. I’d known him as long as I’d known Eamon because Dalton and Eamon were a package deal and everyone knew it. Dalton’s mom died when he was in middle school. After that, he was raised by the Royces, with Eamon. I knew their history as if it were my own. Eamon was mine, Dalton was his. Dalton and I were always close. He was my brother from the moment I married Eamon and now Eamon was gone. Disappeared. Dead. I was a widow — a word so ghostly and hollow, a word that should’ve been a palindrome but wasn’t, those w’s with their arms stretched wide, begging for mercy.

I wanted to grow wings and fly into Dalton’s mouth, scratch and claw both of us, bleed inside him. Teardrop-spill all over him like honey. The snow was still falling. Falling still. The house, quiescent. Lilac mint whiskey kisses. Heartbeat-breaths. Thrumming piano strings, slowing. Slower. Nocturne.

Dalton pulled away. I didn’t. He put his hands on my shoulders, hot-pink heat flashed my cheeks. The fireplace clicked.

“Let’s talk about this first,” he said.

I shook my head no and kissed him again, saw the glitter sizzle and spark when I closed my eyes.

Caesura.

The phone rang.

My mom. Making sure we weren’t out driving in the snowstorm, making sure I was safe at home like I said I was. I was paranoid I’d mention something about the kissing. Accidentally say the word mouth out of place or mention Dalton’s tongue. Dalton’s lips. They weren’t Eamon’s. Eamon’s mouth was fuller. He had a bottom lip I could’ve chewed on for a week. I could still feel it between my teeth. Eamon was gone forever, but he was everywhere. How did that happen? I even heard his sea-god timbres in the blue of Noah’s cry.

I had my mom put Noah’s ear to the phone so I could tell him goodnight. When the call was over, I covered my face and cried.

“Heyheyheyhey,” Dalton said quietly, like he always did. As if he could stop me, catch me before the tears took off, pause it all before I rained.

But it didn’t work.

I rained and rained and rained because it’s what I do. I’ve gotten good at it. Rain Queen.

I tried to catch my breath, but couldn’t. Dalton went into the kitchen to get me a glass of water and I slid down the living room wall and rained more.

Dalton crouched to be closer to me, his long legs, his knees spread wide.

“Evi, drink this. Glass of water. I put lemon in it. Drink a little for me, please?” he said calmly. Also something else he always did. Especially when I wandered during the space between.

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***

The space between: there were sixteen days between Eamon’s death and Noah’s birth, as if their spirits had spent those sixteen days together in the sky, an airy boys’ club somewhere I couldn’t reach. They rested for sixteen bars — sixteen bars of music transposed into sixteen thick, dark days that felt like sixteen hundred endless nights — au repos.

Backyard-wandering, full-moon pregnant in my turquoise maternity dress and tobacco-colored cowboy boots, I’d lose my way. Dalton would find me. He was always finding me. He’d try to lure me inside with lemon water, with sticky, stinky cheeses or a small green bowl of almonds, the darkest chocolate chips. He would shake the bowl, like I was a kitten waiting to hear the rattle of food. Once inside, I’d get in bed and sleep for hours, usually waking up to Dalton making food or cleaning or working on a bike in the garage. Sometimes he’d put down towels and work on a bike in the living room, the TV or music turned down low so he wouldn’t wake me. He became my protector, our protector, Noah still womb-safe and warm.

The wandering didn’t happen so much after Noah was born. Noah grounded me. Kept me still. A welcomed weight.

***

“Drink a little more for me, please,” Dalton said again. He was sitting next to me on the floor with his back against the wall.

I shook my head no.

“Leeny. For me, please,” he said.

So I did.

“It’s supposed to keep snowing,” I said, my cry-throat thick.

“Okay,” he said, rubbing my back as I leaned forward.

“I miss him so fucking much,” I said, pushing my fists into my temples.

“Me too,” he said.

He cried too. It’s what we did together. So if someone were to ask me if I’d been intimate with Dalton, I’d say yes. Sobbing together was its own unique form of intimacy — a thread wrapped around us so tight it was cutting off our circulation from the rest of the world.

Dalton stood up, held his hand out for me. We went into the kitchen. He bent over and drank water straight from the faucet. I got a satsuma from the counter, felt its cool weight in my hand, peeled it, and turned on Otis Redding on my phone. Playing Otis Redding or Sade or Phil Collins or Journey made me feel like Eamon was still here. Those were his favorites. Not guilty pleasures. Pleasures. Now they were mine.

Before Dalton and I had made our way to the piano, we’d slow danced in the kitchen to “Chained and Bound.” I turned it back on and ate my satsuma. Dalton was leaning against the counter, watching me.

“I’m tired and I know I’ll be tired for the rest of my life,” I admitted. “I don’t want you to feel like you’re trapped here with me, with Noah,” I said.

“You don’t get it,” Dalton said.

I shrugged.

Dalton pushed himself off and sugar-kissed my candied mouth. These were different from the piano kisses. These kisses were hungry. Dalton was eating. We were breathing like we were fighting. The Otis Redding ended and “One More Night” by Phil Collins came on.

Dalton stopped, pulled away. “Fuck,” he said turning from me, “I don’t know what to do.” He laced his fingers on top of his head.

I went into the freezer for the whiskey.

***

When Noah fusses in the middle of the night and I don’t hear him, Dalton stands in the refrigerator light and gets out a bottle of my breast milk. Many times, I’ve gotten up to pee and found Dalton in Noah’s room, both of them sleeping, their heads lolling to the side, the empty bottle on the floor at Dalton’s feet. I feel guilty when my bladder wakes me up, but my baby doesn’t. I feel guilty for being grateful Dalton lives with us now so I don’t have to do it all alone.

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Dalton loves Noah so much and has a thousand nicknames for him. Noah-bear, No-no, Noahlicious. Sometimes he’ll put Noah in his sling and take him out to the garage so they can do dude stuff together while I nap. Sometimes Dalton takes Noah over to Eamon’s parents’ to visit on the days when I can’t leave the house. The days I can’t leave the bed.

Eamon never got to hold his baby and it feels like a thick, itchy eyelash stuck in my eye. Forever.

***

The prelude from Bach’s “Cello Suite no. 1” was playing in the kitchen while I drank, checked the weather. We had five inches of snow and they were expecting ten more overnight. Dalton made his way to the piano, asked if I had any requests. While I was thinking, he started playing a Rachmaninoff piece I recognized. It was soft. It sounded like the snow.

“You always want—” he said before launching into the opening piano of “Hold Me” by Fleetwood Mac.

“I do always want Fleetwood Mac, yes,” I nodded and sat next to him on the bench.

He started playing “Gypsy,” my favorite.

But I put my hand on his to get him to stop. Eamon hated Fleetwood Mac until he married me. He had no choice. He knew I’d never marry a man who didn’t love Fleetwood Mac as much as I did. Hearing “Gypsy” was too much. Dalton stopped playing and put his hands in his lap.

When Dalton’s mom Penelope died, Eamon’s mom Loretta made sure Dalton continued with his piano lessons. Penelope and Loretta met after both of their little inner city churches merged — one black, one white — in a town where black and white people didn’t worship together often. Louisville was an extremely segregated city, and for a black church and a white church to decide they wanted to do something completely different was a bold statement. Penelope and Loretta loved the early-eighties-rebel-hippie-radicalness of it all and fell in love with one another quickly in Sunday school class a year before they both got pregnant. Penelope used to teach Eamon piano lessons too, although they didn’t stick. Loretta told Dalton it was important for him to keep playing piano, even though his mom was gone — piano could be a way for him to connect to her, always.

I worried about Dalton’s hands. Like what if he got them caught or cut on a tool or they got stuck in the spokes when he was fixing something? How could he play piano? He didn’t play professionally but he could’ve. He could play the classics, he could play jazz, he could teach if he wanted. Once I saw an ad for a pianist to play Christmas songs at the mall and I showed it to him and he gave me a look. He’d done it before in college, and in the past he’d played in the lobbies of fancy hotels on weekends.

“Okay, this,” he said. He played the outro of “Epic” by Faith No More.

“I like that,” I said.

He finished the song.

“Hey. I’m sorry I kissed you again,” he said.

“Don’t be. I started it,” I said.

“Yeah, but I meant in the kitchen,” he said.

“Are you? Sorry?”

“Do you want me to be?”

He took the glass of whiskey from my hands, downed the rest.

“I have to accept the fact that the rest of my life won’t make sense,” I said.

I wasn’t waiting for him to say anything. I was drunk, I was sleepy, I kept thinking I heard Noah crying but remembered he wasn’t with us. He was safe and warm at my parents’ twenty minutes away.

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Dalton started playing “Moondance.”

“You play by ear. How do you have all of these memorized? How do you play when you’re drunk?” I asked. Sometimes he used sheet music, but most of the time he played without it.

“I’ve seen the sheet music for most of these at one point or another. I’ve practiced all of them. I hear the music and it makes sense to my fingers. It’s just what I choose to do with my brain. I got a lot of room up here,” he said, tapping the side of his head.

I listened, he played. I put my head on his shoulder.

“By the way, our life makes sense to me,” Dalton said.

I closed my eyes so I could keep it in. Dalton’s words accompanied by the piano. A new song.

Excerpted from Whiskey & Ribbons by Leesa Cross-Smith. Copyright © 2018 by Leesa Cross-Smith. Excerpted by permission of Hub City Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.