This is Our North Dakota

published in Mount Hope Literary Journal, Fall 2013 


Charlie lay in the backseat, smoking, examining the marks from his IVs in the dwindling light. He was still wearing his gown, having departed prematurely from the hospital. Corrine, abandoning her rationality, drove on toward Virginia, thinking that this would all be over soon anyway. Charlie would be gone. She washed the thought from her head. She did not want him to die; she just wanted—what did she want?—for him to be like he was before, for their life to be as it had been.

She adjusted the rearview to look at him, lying there, appearing so much older than he was. Once again, she had helped him escape, had, as he said, “rescued” him from his hospital bed. Didn’t she owe him that? After all, he had rescued her; he had taught her; he had created her.

There she is looking out her window at the scruffy landscaper her father hired. He’s playing air guitar and singing Bob Dylan. He’s smiling up at her with his Elvis eyes. He’s writing songs for her, calling her a muse, calling her a goddess. He’s touching her.

“He’s touching me,” she sang, retrieving a cigarette. That was the first song she recorded, the first that got radio play, the one reporters from the weekly alternative papers asked her about. She could never have done it without him, without Charlie.

They’re in a youth hostel in Las Vegas, working as dishwashers during the day, playing guitar at night; he’s playing, she’s learning. Then she’s playing. Then they’re writing songs. Then she’s writing songs. Open mic nights, street corners, and finally paying gigs. Phoenix, San Diego, San Francisco, Portland. She’s writing more, developing her style. He’s so proud, so in love with his muse. She says, “No, you’re mine.”

 “Sing, ‘You’re my muse’,” he croaked from the backseat. “God, I love that song.” She sang for him, and he closed his eyes and tried to sleep, though the pain made it nearly impossible. It was his song, and when he was gone she would not sing it again. She had stopped singing it before, when the drinking took over, when the jealousy took over, when the accusations and reproaches took over.

She sells out clubs and bars, and he has a girlfriend who has the eyes of many men on her. She has a manager, and he has a foe to compete for her attention. She has a record, and he has a mention in the liner notes. She has a hit single, and he has a drink. And another. She writes a song titled, “Cliché,” and he throws a glass onstage when she sings it. She tells him to get the fuck away from her, and he does.

The exit for I-64 came more quickly than she expected. In her fantasy, he would drift off to sleep and pass away before they got to Lover’s Leap, before she had to refuse to jump with him, despite the pained-yet-comforting way he assured her that true lovers would fly back up, that the wind would carry them up, that if they held tight to one another’s hands, they would be Okay. So she had said “Okay” to assure him that she was his true lover, even though she knew it wasn’t so, she knew she would not jump, would not let him jump if it came to it. He was weak anyway. She could drag him back to the car, back to reality, back to a hospital.

In reality, there he lies, gun in one hand, bottle of Mellow Corn in the other, Bible on the bedside table. It’s some motel off the interstate in a nameless cow town in Texas. He has called her, says he can’t live without her. Says he’ll do it, he’ll kill himself if she doesn’t show up. Says he knows she’s in Texas, knows she’s nearby. And there she is at the door. She’s not angry. She’s scared, genuinely scared. He cries when he sees her, hides the fake gun under the mattress. Tells her he’ll clean up his act. Tells her he bought two copies of her album, that he likes the title, that he too has fond memories of North Dakota; he wants to make new memories of North Dakota. He’s writing again. It’s really good stuff, he says, about being addicted, about living on the streets, about life without her. He asks her if she’ll listen to him, if she’ll talk to the record company, whoever it takes. She says, yes, she will. She’ll listen. And she does. She listens to misstrums, missed lines. She tells him it’s good, his music. She holds his shaking hands, this man who was once her savior, her lover.

 “I can’t be your mother, Charlie,” she tells him.

“You know that’s not what I want,” is his reply.

“I can’t be the other,” is hers.

And that was that. He had listed her as his next of kin, and she wasn’t hard to find. When she showed up at the hospital, as she said she wouldn’t and knew she would, the nurse told her there wasn’t much left of his liver. He had a barrel chest when she first fell in love with him out of her bedroom window. Now he was small, shrunken, a living mummy in sanitized hospital wraps.

When the nurse left, he told her his plan. All she had to do was get him out of there. She looked out the window and heard his voice.

 “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the west, and Juliet is the sun.”

“The east,” she says. “The sun rises in the east.”

“I prefer sunsets, darlin’,” he tells her. She is in love.

She had driven all night and through the day, and he was awake and sitting up but quiet when she pulled into the gravel parking lot of the Lover’s Leap Overlook.

She got out of the car first and opened his door. He tried to get out by himself, but he had to hold onto the car door and then her for support. Her arm around his waist, his around her shoulder, they looked like a strange wounded animal moving to throw itself over the cliff’s edge.

His gown blew open, and he said he wished he had clothes. She apologized, though she did not know to bring him any.

They were at the edge, but there was still a railing separating them from the brink. “You’ll have to get me over the railing,” he said soberly.  She climbed over and knocked loose earth off the edge with her foot. As she did, she considered what would happen next.

“Give me your hand,” Corinne said.

He did, and like a child into his mother’s arms, he made his way over the railing. There they stood at sunset, looking over the edge and then back at each other, the gravel unstable under their feet.

“You don’t have to do this. I’m gonna die soon anyway.”

“But we’re not going to die,” she heard herself say. “We’re going to be blown right back, and you’re going to get better, and we’re going to drive off in your old Mercury, and you’re going to teach me to play guitar, and we’re going to be the best god damn duo in th—” And she looked back at the car, and she looked at Charlie, and she was taken back to her bedroom window, and he is young and free and full of life. She tightened her grip on Charlie’s hand. “I prefer sunsets, darlin’,” she sang as she surrendered and stepped from the crumbling ground into the welcoming air.


Title photo courtesy of Eastbound & Down

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