The trailer perched on the side of the hill, a Waverlee Homes double-wide, shining against the wet clay and gray mounds of last week’s snow.
“Here she is,” Brandon said, pulling the Buick to a stop at the end of the mud lane.
Charley watched her husband’s face, tilted up toward the trailer, his skin pale in the glare of the February sun. He wore the same look that he got on stage when he played with Stonewall’s Bones. It was a private vacancy that quickened Charley’s blood.
“Your house,” Brandon said.
Above them the trailer seemed to sway with each gust of wind. The whole thing was just propped up on cinderblocks, a pile of them functioning as the front stairs.
“Our house, B.B., it’s our house,” Charley said, though maybe she really did have more claim over it since the trailer and quarter-acre of steep, rocky land had all come from her body, from her hours of dancing naked on a rotating pole, her harvested ovaries.
They walked up the hill slowly, mud sucking at Charley’s black snow-boots and Brandon’s leather Redwings.
“I thought it was supposed to have blue trim,” Charley said. Brandon stopped and squinted, and Charley saw the flicker on his face, the tightness in his jaw. “Never mind, I—”
“We looked at so many, babe, I don’t—”
“Never mind, never mind,” Charley said. “I’ve never given a fuck about trim before in my life. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. This is why we should never have a baby. Can you imagine? I’ll pop the thing out and then I’ll be like, oh, I thought it was supposed to have blue eyes.”
“I thought you were supposed to have blue eyes.” Brandon leaned in and kissed her neck. “But don’t worry, I got over it.”
Charley smiled and fumbled in her pocket for a cigarette. She rarely saw Brandon in the daylight anymore. These short winter days passed quick as a slap, and Brandon left for work early in the morning and got back just before she headed to the club. Sometimes, stumbling sleep-blind to the bathroom, she saw him in the kitchen in the dishwater-dawn light, buttering his toast and humming the riff to some new song he’d wrote, and it struck her how content he seemed alone.
Fat clumps of snow-ice dripped from the drain spouts of the trailer and hit the ground with a wet smack. The house looked fragile, too easy to lift up and take away, too small to signify all those hours, all those sweaty twenty-dollar bills. But the wind smelled of coal smoke from over the ridge and something cooler, the almost-blue of melting snow. Grabbing Brandon’s arm, Charley pulled him closer to her. She offered him her cigarette and turned their bodies, as a unit, away from the house and toward the steep hill that led down to the river. They owned less than an acre but the land on all sides was undeveloped, a blanket of poplar, oak, and locust that reached down to the banks of the Milk River where a CSX flashed by on its way to Birmingham, continuous freight rhythm punctuated by one long whistle scream. The trees weren’t the old growth that Charley’s dad always talked about, but the setting sun sent slivers of gold through their bare branches and there were no human voices anywhere around.
Inside the trailer it felt colder. They stood in the doorway, thin winter light on new linoleum, and Charley suddenly needed to touch it all, the way she had petted those stacks of dollar bills those first few weeks at the club, unwilling to turn them over to the bank until Brandon got her worrying about fire, theft, or her mother putting their laundry away though she’d been told over and over again not to.
Charley made it halfway across the living room carpet before Brandon stopped her and pointed out the muddy tracks.
“Shit, fuck.” She bent to loosen her boots. “I already fucked it up.”
“Marked it,” Brandon said.
“Fucked it up.” Charley tossed her boots by the door.
“Claimed it,” Brandon said, smiling.
“Well.” Charley opened the hall closet, then moved on to the guest bedroom. “Just so you know, once the newness wears off this ain’t gonna be a shoes-off house. It’s a fucking home, not a museum, right?”
Charley and Brandon had been married for two years, since she was nineteen and he twenty-three, but they’d lived the whole time in Charley’s parents’ basement. It wasn’t a bad setup, really, they had their own kitchen and bathroom and even a private entrance, but there was no lock on the door from upstairs, and if Charley didn’t clean house for a week she came home to find Febreze canisters and notes from her mother.
“A shoes-on-all-the-time house,” Brandon said, following Charley down the hall. “We’ll wear our shoes in bed if we want.”
Brandon’s mom, Darlene, visited Charley’s mom at least once a day, she brought no-bake cookies and pepperoni rolls and skeins and skeins of pastel yarn. She couldn’t stop crocheting, her hands ticking constantly like a mad windup doll. In the mornings when Charley woke with glitter crusted in her eyes, smelling of stale smoke and cologne from the club, she found that new doilies and afghans had sprouted all across the arms of her couch. And even now, a year and a half after Charley’s miscarriage, Darlene kept knitting booties, sweaters, and hats, so many that every few months Charley took a bag of them up to the reservoir and dropped them over the dam, watching the pink and blue wool grow soggy, then swirl and suck downstream.
“This.” Brandon stepped past Charley and pushed open their bedroom door. “Is where you can dump all your stuff, never ever put your clothes away, and your mother and my mother can’t say anything about it.”
The room looked like nothing. A beige square of carpet, white walls and a closet with sliding doors of blond wood. Charley had never thought much past the moment of signing her name on the deed. This project had been so big, so deliciously difficult, she’d happily lost herself in it. Brandon had wanted to rent a place, but she’d insisted they needed to own it. Just the word “own” had a nice weight, like a smooth stone in her stomach. Something related to “control” but softer, without the sharp consonant kick at the beginning. With the baby gone— she hadn’t even wanted the baby, in fact she’d wanted the baby to be gone— but with the baby gone she’d been left floating in a doorway, weightless in the frame, and it was either run or own.
No bank would help them, though. Charley’d had no job, and Brandon worked for a tiny internet and computer tech company that never kept its promises of promotion. When they hired him, they’d claimed that West Virginia was an untapped sea of computer and cellphoneless customers just waiting to move into the twenty-first century, but the mountains were too high, almost no one got service, and those who did left soon anyways.
Charley reached out and ran her hand along the wall—this is what I’ve been working for. She toggled the light switch.
“We’ll get electricity soon,” Brandon said. “Get the inspector out here and we should be able to move in next week.”
He took her hand and led her back past the bathroom and its wall of mirrors. “Look, after this week that’s where you’re gonna be dancing from now on.” He kissed her cheek. “Private shows only, right?”
Charley smiled, she’d thought the same thing when she saw the tall mirrors, but still, it always surprised her how Brandon joked so easily. When she’d first brought up the idea of working at the White Lightning Club up in Charleston, she’d expected him to say he would leave her, and even after he’d agreed to her plan and backed her up on the public lie that she was working nights at the Telecom call center, it still shocked her how supportive he acted. He’d been focused on the end the whole time, though. When Charley first started, Brandon presented her with The Countdown, a calendar of money and dates that mapped out the number of days she’d need to work to make the money for the trailer and land. You work thirty-four weeks, he’d said, leaning across the kitchen table, over the frozen pizza they were sharing. Thirty-four weeks, no more.
Brandon had always cared for Charley in a mildly maternal way. She swore that his interest in her grew ten times when she told him she was pregnant. They’d only been dating for four months when it happened, and his loyalty confused her. All along she’d expected him to stop calling, to drift away and get back with his ex. She’d stored up her sadness preemptively, an ache in the back of her throat like the first stirrings of the winter you know will come.
Brandon’s ex, Sarah, sang in Stonewall’s Bones with him. She’d pierced her own lip, streaked her hair with bright red dye and taught herself to play the guitar. She knew some people down in Atlanta and was gonna get their band a few gigs, set up a summer tour. But then Charley got pregnant and Brandon convinced her to keep it, convinced her to get married, and made it all sound like the best thing that could ever have happened, as if they’d had sex in the band’s practice space those afternoons just for that purpose. All that summer, while Charley sat on the porch, snapping string beans with her mother and watching her stomach grow, she’d thought about the tour. Each time she pictured Brandon, onstage in Atlanta, sweat running down the tendons of his neck, she’d felt something that wasn’t quite disappointment but a cousin to it.
After the baby was gone and she’d started at the club, Brandon pampered her, just as he had during the pregnancy. He’d run her hot baths with Epsom salts for the aching muscles, bandaged up her knees. And in the weeks before the egg donation, when Charley lay in bed every morning visualizing the ovulation like ripening fruit plumping up in dense nests inside her, Brandon had given her the hormone injections himself, straight into the soft skin of her stomach.
If Charley hadn’t totally loved him before all that, she knew she did afterward. She loved what she hadn’t expected—that he never questioned, never judged her use of her body for money. And in return she gave him honesty. She told him funny stories about the club, told him how she’d once thought she was in love with her brother, told him how much she liked lying to both of their mothers. The one thing she couldn’t figure out how to talk about was John.
He’d come to the club even before Charley put her profile up on the fertility clinic website. She’d noticed him her first week at White Lightning, his clean beauty: blond hair, blue eyes, thin nose, high cheekbones. The kind of guy you might not mind dancing for, a rarity in the extreme. He never bought private dances, though; in fact, he spent most of his time watching the TV on the wall behind the bar, but made sure that he tipped each girl ten dollars for every stage show. If he didn’t make it up there during your performance, he’d find you afterward and give you the money with his head cocked to the side, as if embarrassed. Most other guys, even the ones who tried to act like pimps or gangsters, only ever tipped with ones.
Charley had been in her third week of egg donation treatment when John requested a private. The bouncer came backstage to tell her, and the other girls cheered, glad that one of them had finally broken him down. But John didn’t want a dance. He wanted to see the bruised spots above her hips where the needles injected the gonadotropin into her bloodstream every day. He wanted to tell her how he and his wife Celia had known immediately, when they saw her photo and read her bio on the Allegheny Fertility Partners website, that they would choose her to be their donor. He said he’d realized only later that that image of her smiling face, wreathed in frizzy, brown curls, must have been familiar from the White Lightning Club.
“Hey look, baby.” Brandon waved his hand at the bright white kitchen walls and empty Formica countertops. “You think this kitchen’s pretty enough to inspire you to cook?”
“Hey, I cook,” Charley said. “Pop-Tarts and SpaghettiOs.”
The cupboards were covered in something like Saran Wrap, the dishwasher taped closed.
“Look.” Brandon pointed to the particleboard island. “No spider traps.”
For the past year, when he wasn’t conducting trains for Norfolk Southern, Charley’s dad had spent his time trapping bugs. He painted and shellacked them, gold crickets, chartreuse ants, vermilion mantises, then mounted them on the walls of the back bedroom, the one that had belonged to Charley’s brother Blake. Most of the bugs he caught in Brandon and Charley’s apartment. Charley kept thinking that this bizarre art must be some latent way of dealing with Blake’s death.
“I think I might actually miss it,” she said, pulling her Camels out of her coat pocket. “Being there for the fresh morning catch, seeing his eyes light up over a cockroach.” She flipped the pack open and paused. “Wait, we are gonna smoke in the house, right?”
“It’s a house, not a museum,” Brandon said. “Your house.”
Charley winced, there was something almost taunting in his echoed repetition.
“You gotta stop saying that.” Charley held out the Camels, but Brandon shook his head.
“I’m just giving credit where credit is due, you worked your ass off—” he laughed and covered his mouth, even with his new front teeth he always covered his mouth, “I mean you literally worked your beautiful ass off for—”
“Take one.” She shook the pack. “It’s our inaugural cigarette.”
“Yes ma’am, Your Highness wants cigarettes smoked, cigarettes shall be smoked.” He winked and took the open pack.
“Cheers,” she said and lit first his, then her own.
Blue-white light cut through the window above the sink and fell in a pool between them. The air was chilly, thin, and swirling with smoke and the smell of new plastic.
Charley and her brother Blake had built a clubhouse when they were nine and thirteen, just before puberty yanked him away from her. They’d saved their allowances until they had enough to buy two 4-by-8 plywood boards that they dragged into the woods behind their grandparents’ place. After the last nail had been hammered into the floor, Blake brought out a stolen pack of their dad’s cigarettes, and they smoked them, coughing and laughing until they made themselves sick.
“He never paints them the color I think he’s going to,” Charley said.
“Dad,” Charley said, “the bugs, I always think I can guess but I’m never right. He’s tended toward red, though, lately.”
Brandon shook his head, but Charley had seen him, just the week before, running up the backstairs, calling out her father’s name, carrying a luna moth and not even bothering to cover up his smile.
Charley moved toward the sink. “What do you think he’s gonna do when Blake’s room is full?”
Ray had already covered two walls, and he continued to work on his project constantly. Charley held the image in her mind of the last painted bug being pinned into place, and her father with still so many days to live.
“He’ll come here,” Brandon said, “and start to put them all over our house.”
Charley dropped her cigarette butt down the drain. It felt good doing that, leaving something there even if the pipes weren’t connected to anywhere. She gripped the sink— this was it, the result of the decision she’d made in her mother-in-law’s car on the drive home from the hospital where she had lost the baby and hemorrhaged for two hours straight.
All that day at the hospital she’d tried to submit to the real loss she knew she was supposed to feel, but the fit of it was all wrong. On Brandon it hung right. She could see it grafting itself onto him, even there in the car on the ride home, she saw the way it sharpened and deepened his face. After Blake had drowned, Charley too had been subsumed in a long, white, and swollen cloud. Now, though, she knew she needed to move quickly. The decisions had come to her like a slice, crisp and perfect, first the strip club idea and then, after she learned that nothing at all was wrong with her ovaries, the egg donation. The baby she’d had no power over, but her body and her eggs she could control. She liked the image that the decisions brought to her, a hand dipping into a reserve of something so precious, liquid gold, spreading it, giving it away.
We need you to consent, the nurse at the fertility clinic had explained, to the understanding that with fewer eggs in your ovaries, your chances of future pregnancies are somewhat lower. Charley had stared down at the black-and-white paper and waited for some shadow of doubt, but none had come, so she’d signed the form. You’ll never look at men the same way again, the older stripper said her first night in the club, but to Charley this admission had sounded less like a warning and more like an invitation, and so she’d hoisted herself up onto the stage. Before she started at the club, her days had been a haze of floating emotions, a smoke that hung between her and every normal interaction. But after nights at White Lightning, Charley focused. She woke and ate a bowl of Cheerios, showered, and moved straight through her days; while shopping with her mother or paying utility bills, she held the images of the men’s faces in her mind like a lozenge, something her tongue went back to over and over again. The man who said he’d pay her one hundred dollars if she would only smile more, and the one who called out to her as she walked past, touched her hair, and told her it was the color of gasoline.
Brandon had needed reasons, and she had given him that word, “own.” She’d told him that they had to get out of her parents’ basement eventually and she wanted them to have a nice place. But the decisions had come before the purpose was clear. And now the purpose had arrived, dropped in her lap, so final. She’d been hurtling toward it all along, making money as fast as she could without thinking at all about how it would feel in this moment of stop.
“We should get going.” Brandon rested his hand on her hip, dropped his cigarette down the sink. “I’ve got practice at eight. Tony got a new drum kit and he’s been calling me all day to come see it.”
The sun set behind Bethlehem Mountain, leaving the sky a rosy glow and the trees silhouetted, spiky and frigid, cemented in a layer of snow. The windshield fogged thick with their breath. Brandon wiped it clear and turned the Buick around but kept moving his hand, waving goodbye to the house. Charley watched his long fingers in the glow of the dashboard lights and remembered how he’d insisted on massaging her pregnant stomach so the baby would know the feel of his touch. They’d joked that he should have been the pregnant one. He found the whole thing so fascinating and beautiful, but Charley hated the weight, as if the baby were pulling her constantly toward the ground. Every month had brought some terrifying change, and all of it so close inside her. Through the whole thing she’d never taken her prenatal vitamins, never stopped smoking or drinking coffee.
She hadn’t stopped smoking during the donation process either, though she’d signed on the form saying that’s what she’d do. John had seen her smoke and he didn’t seem to care. He paid full dance prices, though all they ever did was talk. Every time he walked through the White Lightning door, he broke the “no contact between donors and intended parents” clause in the thirty-page Privacy, Liability and Risks Form, and watching him head to the bar for his Maker’s on the rocks, Charley had felt the knowledge of this fact rise inside her with a satisfying zip.
“Fucking cold,” Brandon said, tilting the air vents up toward his face. “God, I hope they’ve got good heat in that club. I can’t imagine taking my clothes off and dancing right now.”
“Yeah, I can’t quite imagine you doing that either.” Charley smiled.
“What? You can’t see me as a stripper? Come on?”
Brandon slowed the car as a possum ambled across the road and up the icy bank.
John had come to the club eight times throughout weeks three, four, and five. They’d sat on the velveteen couch in the VIP lounge and traced the curvature of their overlapping lives. They determined that they lived in the same small town and had gone to the same schools, eight years apart. Charley laughed out loud the night she realized she had even dated his younger brother, very briefly, when she was fifteen. The other girls swore they had to be having sex, but John never touched her except to run his fingers fleetingly over those bruised injection spots and apologize for all the trouble he and his wife put her through.
“You know you don’t have to go up there tonight.” Brandon glanced at Charley, then back to the road. “We made the payments.”
Charley pulled the lighter out of the dash and held the coil to the tip of her Camel, watching the orange glow climb up the cigarette.
“I’m just gonna finish out the week,” she said.
The Buick’s brakes squeak-squeak-squealed as Brandon slowed for the stop sign at the end of Polk Road.
“Are the girls excited for you?” he asked.
Charley nodded, shrugged. The Countdown wasn’t something she’d shared with the girls at White Lightning. The Countdown was for Brandon alone, a tally of glitter-infested twenty-dollar bills and the seven-thousand-dollar fertility clinic check— a list written in red ink and kept under the corner of their mattress. It was their ritual, but it was Brandon’s list, his counting and recounting and calculating the days left. Charley saw The Countdown as a gift she gave him, a bridge that their relationship could rest on, but at work she never thought about it. She liked the heft of the cash in her hand but not so much the numbers or counting.
Charley had been surprised to find that she was good at stripping, not just the taking-off-of-clothes part, that was easy, but also the pole tricks the older girls taught her and the way to bring up the idea of a private dance with a man who might have decided it wasn’t worth his money. Charley found something pleasingly simple about the interactions she had at the club. All week she stumbled through chit-chat conversations with her father and awkward embraces with her mother and sisters-in-law, but at the club it was simple and smooth. She knew exactly what to do and how to move, the moment to bend in and the moment to tip back. The hours were broken into bit pieces by a hundred different songs and each one a possibility, forty dollars for a one-song dance, seventy-five for two. The increments were logical and built together in a way that never made Charley think past the next moment. The goal was tangible, two twenties in her hand, and the reason, well, she’d decided she’d leave the reason for Brandon to hold onto. Once she slipped behind the wine-red curtains, the only reason Charley needed was the way a song made her stomach swirl and the look on a man’s face when he needed her.
Though she never took her ring off, there at the club Charley wasn’t married and she’d never lost the baby, never been pregnant in fact. When she danced, she used the name Vivian and she floated with no future or past, like the preserved snake in her seventh-grade science room, suspended in liquid and glass for all to view.
From the kitchen, Brandon’s voice echoed down the hall and into the bathroom where Charley sat, hunched in the tub, shaving the back of her left leg.
“We really need to go grocery shopping soon,” he said. “Nothing but Bug-Zap traps in here.”
“Mom’s got leftover lasagna upstairs,” Charley called, but she could already smell something heating, a tinge of burnt bread and sugar. Turning the faucet on, she dipped her leg in the stream, enjoying the smooth slap of water on fresh skin.
“. . . like breakfast . . .”
Brandon’s words were inaudible, but she did not turn the water off.
“Okay?” he called.
On May 16 Charley had checked into the Allegheny Regional Hospital, where the nurses took her basal body temperature and shot her full of sedatives. When she woke, her abdomen was bloated, tender, and emptied of twenty-five eggs. She’d kept an eye out for John in the hallways as Brandon pushed her wheelchair toward the parking deck, but he was nowhere in sight, and he never came back to the club after that. Eventually Charley had stopped expecting him and shrugged it off, she figured the implantation had failed and they’d blamed her, but had to pay anyways. Sometimes though, when the club doors opened, Charley thought she saw him and her stomach clenched. Still, she knew it was not exactly John that she wanted, more the idea of someone who came there for her, someone seeking not just any skin.
Short bursts of music spilled through the windows of Tony’s house, drums mostly. Charley parked at the top of the steep driveway and let Brandon out. They’d already kissed goodbye, but when he opened the door Charley pulled him back and pressed her face once more against his scratchy chin.
“You’ll be up when I get home?” she asked.
He nodded. “I’ll try to be.”
She saw the scene clearly, Brandon in his boxers on their double bed, guitar in his lap, streaming a YouTube video of some British geek breaking down the solo in “We Will Rock You.” But watching him walk away, through the red smear of brake lights and exhaust, Charley panicked. She pictured the numbers on The Countdown list. Somehow it felt all wrong, like the days ticking off had been not her time at the club but her time with him. Her mind flashed to her old fantasy of Brandon on a big stage in Atlanta, but the face that appeared in the spotlight was John’s.
“Brandon,” she called through the crack in the window. “I love you.”
He stopped and turned, held one hand high. “Love you.”
The heavy security doors were marked with giant bolts of white lightning. Slinging her duffel bag over her shoulder, Charley pushed through, and the music swarmed up and smacked against her. The cold night hung quiet behind her and in front, The Knife’s “Heartbeats” at top volume. She paused there, beside the sweaty bouncer, and even before her eyes had adjusted to the grainy red-gray light, she saw the figure seated under the Budweiser sign and knew it was him.
At the sound of the door, John turned, and Charley’s stomach tightened just above her crotch. He stood and walked toward her, and she saw the pieces of the story lying before them, plain as playing cards: failed in-vitro fertilization, failed implantation, failed marriage. It was a story too familiar to be surprising, but perfect somehow. Charley knew she’d been waiting, it seemed so obvious now.
“. . . three days . . .”
“What?” She grabbed John’s arm and leaned toward him, duffel bag heavy on her shoulder. He stood close enough she could smell the wood smoke on him, whiskey too.
“Celia,” John shouted. “Celia had the baby!”
Charley’s muscles felt weak and her head was empty, but drinks seemed to help so she ordered more. They toasted baby Nathan with boilermakers and then downed Irish redheads and cheered for Charley’s new house. Behind the bar the manager paced, her pale tits jiggling like hardboiled eggs inside her V-neck shirt.
“You’re not working tonight,” she told Charley.
Charley nodded and took another sip.
“I have some photos of him, I want you to see.” John patted his jacket and pants pockets, stood up off the stool and patted again. “Aww shit, I left my phone in the truck.”
The manager raised her eyebrows like she’d seen that coming, but Charley followed John outside anyway.
The photos were small and unfocused, a blob of pink and red skin swaddled in blankets, but John kept flipping between them like there was something more to see.
“I wanted you to know.”
He handed Charley the phone and she held it, cupped in her hands like a small blue heater.
The music from inside rose and dipped as the front door opened and swung closed again. Charley looked up at John, leaned against the hood of his truck, smoking a cigarette. She held his phone out at arm’s length so that the fuzzy photo light spilled over their boots and the wet parking lot. In the glow of blue electricity the water was freezing. Under their feet, the slick liquid turned solid, small shards of ice shooting across the puddle and anchoring there until all the pieces fit.