Ghosts on the Dashboard
by Leah Tallon
There’s an early photo of me as an almost-toddler, shirtless and in a diaper, drinking juice from a Budweiser can.
Although she is always with me, my mother is a vague presence, smoke in the corner of the room. Instead, my focus is squarely on my father. The one who is there and then he is not. He smells of motor oil and stale beer. He’s always covered in fiberglass powder. Every pair of pants he owns is splattered with old paint. He doesn’t wear a shirt unless he has to. He puts me on his shoulders and spins around until the edges of my small world blur into a rush of color. He lets me watch him tinker with cars. He shows me how to pet a cat. “Be gentle,” he says. “Love is gentle.”
A week after my boyfriend’s house burns down from faulty electrical, everything we own is newly bought to replace what is gone. Stiff clothing, unfamiliar shoes. My body is not my own. We spend a wintry night at Pistol Pete’s, drinking whiskey after whiskey until I’ve forgotten how to open my car door. A stranger puts me in my driver’s seat and waves me off. The snow comes down in curtains and the roads are slippery. I drive the wrong way and am lost on what should be a straight-shot drive. We have driven separately and he has gotten himself home. He doesn’t answer his phone. I sit on the side of the road and wait for someone to look for me.
I think that humans aren’t hurricanes and we get to choose what we allow to happen.
My grandmother sends me a handmade green and white dress spun with lace and ribbons for my sixth birthday. It makes me look like a cowgirl so I pretend my bike is my horse and I race myself around our trailer park for hours while sweaty, fat Polish men sit in lawn chairs in their yards and cheer me on as I pass. When I hit a pothole, the lace hem of the dress gets stuck in the bike chain and my knees catch my fall on loose gravel and jagged cement. I stand up and inspect the blood pooling in the gouge on my left kneecap. It drips into my sock as I walk my horse back home.
Eventually my mother packs me up and we leave Georgia and my father behind, but a few days before that, toddler-me sits on the passenger side of a station wagon. It’s one of the many cars my dad buys from the salvage yard, fixes up, and sells for a quick profit. Dad is driving. Neither of us have seat belts on. A can of beer sits between us in the cup holder. The dashboard is fake wood paneling with darkened rings for extra effect. I can’t see over it so I stare at it, looking for recognizable shapes in the pattern. One of them looks like a cartoon ghost, a draped sheet with long holes for eyes. “Boo!” I say to him and he glances at me. “Boo what?” “Boo!” I say again and point to the ghost. He slows down at a stop light and leans in to study my observation. “Well, goddamn,” he says. “That does look like a ghost, don’t it.”
We are immediately friends. We’re sitting in her dry bathtub, sharing a bottle of tequila, exchanging secrets. She tells me about her dad dying when she was young, about the men who never live up to his ghost, about who she is deep down in her guts and how we are connected through fear and pain but also survival. She doesn’t know it in that bathtub but once she has decided on me, she will spend our entire friendship forgiving me over and over and over.
Is it my capacity for sadness that scares you or is it your own?
It’s a second date. I step into the bar 30 minutes early, anxious and needing a drink to calm the nerves. I keep the straw in my mouth between sips and watch the snow fall on busy Clark Street. I don’t know when he got there or when we left. My memory clicks back in a couple hours later, when I try to kiss him and he turns his head. He doesn’t care about my loneliness. He doesn’t think this act is cute. I say something that upsets him on purpose, any stupid thing I can think of because if you can’t love me, I will make you hate me. “You need to get your shit together,” he says, and I walk six blocks from the train in 20 degree weather before realizing I forgot my coat somewhere in the city.
In the dead heat of a Georgia summer, our snow white cat, Kitty, chooses to give birth to five white kittens on the floor of my dad’s Monte Carlo. He lets them stay there for a few days, lets them find their legs before relocating them to a box in the garage. I’ve abandoned my own toys to swaddle the kittens in clean rags and spend equal amounts of time petting each one. They are little and I am little. I name them all and watch them grow, until, one by one, they each make the mistake of taking naps in the wheel wells of the car they were born in. We have five separate funerals for them in the woods across the street from our house. I help dig the hole for the last one.
For my whole adult life, ever since finding out that being alone is so optional, I’ve felt safer touching someone while sleeping. A foot to a foot. A finger to an elbow. Something, anything.
It’ll be a brief orbit and we’ll both be on our way.
Twenty-four years old, another New Year’s Eve in Chicago. After an unknown number of whiskey shots and a bottle of champagne, I exhaustively argue with a jazz club doorman before handing over the 20 dollar fee. The band is still playing. The bartender shushes me for being too loud. My best friend asks if I should keep drinking. I order another drink. Her brother walks with me, arm in arm to her house and I fall onto the air mattress he’s crashing on in their living room and take my pants off. There’s no condom. She is on the other side of the wall, a pillow over her head. She doesn’t speak to me for a year.
I am left alone with a family friend, a man babysitter, while my mother and her sister go out for the evening. As soon as their car pulls out of the trailer park, he calls me from my game of Barbies into the small bathroom and makes me watch him pee. I am amazed he can do this standing up and not paying attention to his dick in his hand. “Pet it,” he says. “It won’t bite.” I lay my small hand on top of it and wonder if mom left something for dinner.
I am tiny in my neighbor’s arms. We peek through the curtains of his front door window to see the red and blue police lights reflect off all the tin roofs in the park. My dad is yelling for me and crying in the rain as the cops handcuff him and push his head into the backseat of their car. My mom stands under the awning with her arms crossed. She isn’t crying. She won’t do that anymore.
When your mama told me she was pregnant, she asked me, “Are you ready to be a daddy?” and when I couldn’t say anything she got so pissed. But the truth is I couldn’t feel much for you until I saw you. And then I felt everything all at once.
I’m too drunk to move, letting the cement in my limbs sink me into the mattress. On my belly, he fucks me from behind. All my organs contract inward in response, trying to lift me away from him. “Your orgasm is right below the pain,” he says. “I know it is.”
The backyard of our apartment complex is full of fire ant hills so I play with my dolls in the front instead. There’s a Puerto Rican girl who lives down the block and comes over to play sometimes. Once, while dressing our dolls, she tells me that she heard her dad tell her mom that my family is white trash, that he doesn’t want her coming over anymore. I haven’t seen her in a while. There’s a row of unkempt bushes lined up underneath the windows to the kitchen and I crawl between them to sit with my back against the building. Banana spiders with designs that look like faces grow big back there. I turn them into characters in my dolls’ lives.
How much you’re hurting is exactly equivalent to how much you love.
I stand outside a burnt-down house, all black, smoking ashes, an empty dog kennel dragged into the snow. Ice falls from the sky and hangs on the power lines. My coat is unzipped. I’m burning all the way through, I can feel it in the deepest corners. A man I’ve never seen before stands next to me, quiet, taking it all in. He hands me a Marlboro and lights it. I drag the fire so deep, stacking pain on top of pain. Somewhere, there’s a bottle with my name on it.
I’m in the ER again with another infection raging through my small body. I try not to squirm on the paper covering the examining chair because I hate how it sticks to my skin but I’m hot with a fever and can’t sit still. I’m afraid to rip it. My mom leaves me with the doctor in order to use the restroom and the doctor leaves a second later. The fluorescent lights are too bright for it being so late in the evening and the hum makes me sleepy. The curtain pulls back and my dad is there, unexpectedly and for the first time in a long time. I might be dreaming. He takes my hand and helps me hop down. A small brown paper bag sticks out of his pocket. We walk past doctors and nurses and sleeping people using their own hands as pillows. The automatic doors open and the air is cool against my sweaty face. He puts me in his car and he slowly drives around the parking lot until I fall asleep to the motion and the swell and fade of street lights.
I don’t know why I’m doing this now although that makes it sound like I haven’t thought of you and that’s not true. I know I won’t send this. Another pile of shredded paper. I need to write it anyway before I turn something to nothing. It’s what I do. I broke things so they couldn’t be fixed.
“You’re so independent,” he tells me, leaning against the cheap kitchen counter in my studio apartment. “I really appreciate that about you. It’s like, you don’t need anyone. You do what you want. You’re fearless.” I slide a pair of pajama pants over my bare legs and stand up from the bed. He’s staring at me in a way that I don’t want to be sober to witness, so I grab the bottle I keep on the bedside table. In three long strides, he crosses the room and puts his hand on my face. “You don’t run from anything,” he says before kissing me.
We were always getting the wrong ideas about each other, him and I. But it gave me something to believe in.
Leah Tallon is a writer living in Milwaukee.