Reeve is an artist. He’s sketching his wife Ellen, how she might look in thirty years. He is adding depth to her expression—her eyes pushed back by what she’s seen and felt, her bones more prominent. He uses the charcoal pencil to shade the shadows of her face. He wants her sketch to embody the knowledge he hopes she will someday find. Ellen is obese and never happy, but Reeve still sees her spirit calling for help from the corners of her eyes. He thinks if he continues to kiss her slick, soft cheek with the intention of reaching the woman he knows she can be, eventually, that woman will appear.
There’s a painting Reeve did of mountains. The painting is hung in the living room, to the right of the front door, so Reeve can take the image with him when he leaves the house. The painting is almost always crooked. Reeve has never seen mountains in person, but he painted them as if he knew them, how they were formed, the exact grey and blue hues of the sky that stretched beyond the canvas, beyond the gold frame that Reeve inherited from his mother when she passed away.
Today’s episode of Maury is interrupted by yet another cable outage, an event that Reeve and Ellen know too well, just as Reeve and Ellen were going to find out if a woman’s daughter was pregnant with her boyfriend’s father’s child. Reeve and Ellen have one cell phone, with only so many minutes, between them. Ellen uses it to call her NA sponsor, a clone of Ellen who sits on her own sunken couch down the street, and take-out Chinese. Reeve uses it to call customer service for their cable box because, more often than not, daytime shows like Maury and Judge Judy become snowy static. “You going to call, or what?” Ellen says, blowing her nose so hard Reeve wonders if she still has a face left behind the tissue. Reeve focuses on the stormy white screen. “You know,” Reeve says,” I heard that what we’re seeing here is actually photons left over from the big bang.” “That’s interesting,” Ellen says. “Here’s the phone.”
Terri is Reeve’s ex-wife. She left him for another man and took Reeve’s daughter Allison with her to Nebraska. This was almost fifteen years ago. Reeve heard from his ex-mother-in-law Carmen that Terri went to truck-school to drive a truck, “because she doesn’t like people, anyway.” Carmen loved and pitied Reeve, both sentiments at constant battle with each other until cancer put her underground. Reeve thought he might see Terri and Allison at Carmen’s funeral, so he sat in the last pew of the church and scanned the backs of heads, but they weren’t there, and he cried from beginning to end. He thought of the day they left, how Allison wouldn’t let Reeve near enough to close her pink backpack and hold her, how she had pulled away from him and ducked under Terri’s long, dirty coat. He knew Terri’s ideas had gotten into her—his image was like a cluster of bugs, crawling into his daughter’s white and impressionable eyes. Not wanting to confuse his daughter, or worse, not wanting to explain himself clean and have her still pick Terri over him, Reeve resigned to simply let Allison go. Today, Ellen is his second chance to prove he can love and be loved to the end. Ellen and her two big hands reaching for him, always there.
Reeve takes the phone from Ellen and calls customer service. An automated voice tells him that, due to stormy weather, subscribers may be experiencing technical difficulties, and that they would be happy to assist in any way they could, but his wait time may be longer than usual. The phone softly emits a shrunken on-hold tune, as if a miniature hand is playing a miniature piano behind the phone’s speaker. Ellen motions him closer. Reeve bends down and puts his lips to Ellen’s plump, layered neck, and makes fish sounds against her skin. She drapes her arm around him, and, though she is patting his back with casual indifference, Reeve can feel a heaviness in her, separate from weight, a heaviness that needs him.
Ellen is napping. Reeve can’t stop looking at the empty bookshelf against the wall, cocked to the left because of the slanted wood floors. He turns his head until the bookshelf is straight again, sturdy, as if it can handle the weight of any amount of books Reeve decides to fill it with, books that might help him feel accomplished, smart. Ellen is snoring. Reeve can’t remember the last thing he read, but he swears he’ll get there, he’ll eventually be an avid reader, a man who knows things, a man who can be counted on to know things.
Because his paintings were not selling in their small Missouri town, Reeve opened a tattoo parlor to earn a living. After tattooing for ten years—hearts and skulls and circular abstract designs meant to represent infinity, the cosmos, heaven—Reeve is well-known, and his work, respected.
When Allison was fifteen, she ran away from her home in Nebraska with her boyfriend Chip, a forty-five-year-old ex-con who was working as a convenience store clerk when she met him. She’d asked for a pack of Reds. He’d thrown in a bag of sunflower seeds at no extra charge and told her to focus when she ate them, to open each seed with her teeth slowly, that she might find something special inside each one. Allison told Terri about the encounter, who told her mother Carmen, who told Reeve. Reeve had merely flicked the information from his radar, sure that his daughter had common sense, the strength and wisdom to surround herself with good people and not scary people. At that time, Reeve liked to imagine Allison as a bright, shining star with rounded edges—radiant, inviting, and full of purpose. But Reeve passed Allison and Chip on the road—he was driving to a diner on the Kansas-Missouri border to meet a friend whose marriage was ending, and they were driving to Florida, where Chip would be arrested—and didn’t even know it. He’d tipped his hat at a pale and grizzly Chip and the vacant-eyed girl in the passenger’s seat who was stiff with a sadness that made Reeve count his blessings.
Reeve’s tattoo shop is between a funeral home and a dry cleaner called RIP dry cleaning. The funeral home has one hearse that owners Jim and Rick park in front. When Reeve looks out the front windows and doesn’t see the hearse, he can smell death all over him, as if he tested the wrong cologne and it refused to settle.
“Thank you for holding howmayIhelpyou?”
Reeve pictures Ellen picturing him at work. She is looking to the side, toward her thoughts of him and his careful art, his squinted concentration, tongue out, the movement of everything slowing down—she can see every jab of the needle pushing color beneath the skin, every wound that stands for something, that implies experience, something to show for.
“Thank you for holding. Are you there, sir? Ma’am?”
Reeve sees his daughter seconds after she kills herself two states over. He’s walking into his tattoo shop for his only appointment that day. The hearse belonging to RIP Dry Cleaning is poorly parked outside, its wheels turned into the curb. He puts his hand to the back windshield. He hears Allison’s voice say, “Hi, Reeve.” He jerks his hand back from the hearse as if someone has blown a whistle, caught him. She is sitting on the sidewalk by the door to his shop, her knees pulled into her chest. She’d be thirty now, but here on the sidewalk, she is the same as she was five years ago, the last time Reeve saw her, when she came to him asking for money he didn’t have. He knew then and knows now that she is battling something hard in her throat, something that rattles, threatens to sink down lower. He looks at her unnatural, almost-black hair, her face orange with the wrong shade of makeup, her small feet inside black canvas shoes with skulls on them, each skull with its tongue stuck out at the world.
“Tell me something,” Reeve speaks into the phone. “Tell me that what we’re seeing is photons left over from the big bang. I’ve always believed it was.”