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"Hot Road Tar (In the Rain)", short story excerpt

Tuesday 6/23/20

In seventh grade for science we were asked to write down our favorite smell. I said hot road tar. Then I thought some more, added words, and wrote “hot road tar in the rain.”

I had liked Thomas Graffle since kindergarten. His mother was always dying. She was close to dying. When we were so young we barely could speak she was burned up in a car from which she could not get out. She was enhoused. A simple accident on a simple road, I remember my father saying. He did that head shake of, “Could have been anyone.” The automatic locks wouldn’t open, and the windows. There were holes in her everywhere after, though they closed some. She couldn’t go many places. She was always getting infected.

I would have gone over her house and done a lot for her, I figured, if Thomas and I were together. I’d make sacrifices. The teacher had us read out, or say, because it wasn’t much reading, what our favorite smells were. I said my full thing—hot road tar in the rain. I was very specific. Thomas was last. He said, “clean bandages.” I didn’t know that that is how he knew, or his family knew, there was no infection or an infection had gone away. I had to think about those bandages.

There were construction men a few weeks after repaving a road near our house where I rode my bike. The steam was rising from a pile of hot road tar. You could get up close, you were just supposed to know not to touch it. I got off my bike, and I put one finger into the black pile, chunky like oatmeal made of round coal lumps and burnt gumballs. It felt like my finger was melting. I had to go to the hospital. I sat next to Thomas in class and I showed him my bandaged finger. I didn’t tell him I had a burn, I sort of expected, or hoped, he’d be able to see that, like an expert, or someone with experience. He just said, “that sucks.”


When I left my husband I know I hurt him in a way that if he had been a man who was dying on the ground, and he was probably going to die no matter what, and he begged someone to end it for him, to put a blade through his skull, I would have knelt down and instead put the knife through his side, or his knee, or his foot. Then walked away.

“You have to do what’s right for you,” a friend said. “In the long run, that is all that’s going to matter.”

Two people can do the exact same thing to you. What is done can be a very bad thing. The same act. In each instance, the act will remain awful, because it is awful on its own, in and of itself. “Things are things,” my dad used to say, and for many years I did not understand why he said that. But in one of those instances, it can be far worse, maybe even infinitely worse, because of context. What that person knows and what they are to you. And you to them. I just left. He didn’t know what the fuck hit him. There was no talk.

When I had moved into where I was going to be for a while, when lawyers did the knowing of my husband for me, I’d take walks at night over a city bridge.

The bridge was old, there were always news items about its replacement, how long the construction would take, the manner in which traffic would be rerouted, but the old bridge remained. It was the color of rust water poured over the back of a copperhead. Musty autumn, even in summer, with some shine.

The shine mostly came from the moonlight, not the metal. It was a harbor bridge. Teens jumped off of it at night. I don’t know how they knew the tide was high enough that they’d be safe because normally the water was too low for jumping. Perfect for paralyzing. You’d look down, and only see darkness. Penumbra. I always thought of a penumbra as a shadow’s shadow. They knew me after a while, on account of my walks. “You look nice tonight,” one of them said, then jumped.


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