Girl, Three Speeds, Pretty Good Brakes
So that was me, going on eighteen. Not too tall, no tits
to speak of, brown hair to my ass, parted in the middle
and brushed intermittently, worn just far enough out
of my eyes so I could see, but my peripheral vision was not
what it could have been. I’d graduated from high school,
and left my family and our home in the rearview mirror
of a Greyhound bus. Moved to the city—or what, in Mon-
tana, passes for one—and stayed awhile. I left a few things
behind, but no one came looking to return them to me or
to fetch me back. I didn’t expect them to. They had enough
to deal with.
What I did take along was a whole lot of questions
for the world—oh yeah—beginning with “Why why why
why why?” I often said it out loud, I guess because I was
lonely enough to talk to myself. Bewildered too, but I knew
enough to go. When I wasn’t asking why, I was giving my-
self orders: Just keep moving. Hit it, Riley. Get the lead out.
So there was me, keeping myself company, and after I got
my job in Missoula, there was my Mustang—my parachute,
my escape. I took up driving like some people take up
smoking or poker, and set about prowling the roads of a
different part of the state—a different planet, almost—than
the one I’d come from, a hundred miles north and two fifty
east. The one where I’d left my mother and father, their
grandson, and their own mess of memories and regrets.
I didn’t know if they were still reaching, like I was, into
empty space, looking to grab onto something no longer
there, but it was likely enough.
One of my half-assed dreams, when I was still young,
had been to become a diesel mechanic, work on huge
things—equipment that could move mountains. It was
not something girls normally wanted, but I was not a
normal girl, and I had plans for that equipment. I guessed
that given the right machinery, my little corner of the
world—including all of Montana, parts of western North
Dakota and southern Alberta, maybe just a small corner
of Wyoming—could be arranged a little more to my liking.
I even thought about joining the army. I knew they had
some big machines, and I knew if you joined, they took you
away. Maybe to somewhere warm, maybe near an actual
ocean, where if it was the right time of year, there would
be whales. As it was, I was already imagining them in the
endless wheat fields, their big humped backs rising up out
of all those amber waves of grain. I had a pair of blue-tinted
sunglasses that nearly took care of the color discrepancy.
Hits of mescaline or the occasional tab of acid took care of
Sometimes I’d lie out there on my back, and the world
would turn over on itself, so all that big sky—all that inex-
haustible sky I knew for some people who weren’t me was
full of possibilities—instead became a big milk-glass bowl
containing my life and all the reasons for me even having
one. It would fill slowly with water, and I could feel fish
swimming through me, through all my arteries and veins.
And then I would start to drown in it, because it was all
wrong and it was too big, and I would close my eyes and
grab onto the dirt or the grass or the rocks or whatever was
there and make the world go back the way it had been, and
then sometimes I’d feel myself drowning in that too.
Despite all that, I was a picture, even if it was only in my
mind, in my uniform. There was, however, the problem of
being too much of a fuckup for even the army to want me.
That, and I had not yet figured out a way to forgive them
for losing my brother and taking my boyfriend. Or either
of them, for letting it happen.
My parents, I knew, saw me orbiting a little too close
to the sun, but they didn’t try to talk me down, probably
because they knew they couldn’t, or were afraid of
pushing me even further away. I learned how to drive
at fourteen and spent a lot of time in my dad’s pickup.
On the back roads, on the straight stretches, some voice
in my head would tell me to floor it. I noticed the same
voice never told me to stop if the road ended or turn if it
turned. I wondered a few times about the significance of
that, and it took a special effort on my part to stay out of
the wheat fields.
This selection comes from Marian Palaia’s novella The Given World, available from Simon & Schuster. Purchase your copy here!
Marian Palaia was born in Riverside, California, and grew up there and in Washington, DC. She lives in San Francisco and has also lived in Montana, Hong Kong, Ho Chi Minh City, and Nepal, where she was a Peace Corps volunteer. Marian has also been a truck driver, a bartender, and a logger. The Given World is her first novel.
Leslie LaChance edits Mixitini Matrix: A Journal of Creative Collaboration, has curated The Wardrobe for Sundress Publications and written poetry reviews for Stirring: A Literary Collection. Her poems have appeared in literary journals, and her chapbook, How She Got That Way, was published in the quartet volume Mend & Hone by Toadlily Press in 2013. She teaches literature and writing at Volunteer State Community College in Tennessee, and if she is not teaching, writing, or editing, she has probably just gone to make some more espresso.
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