Outside Wheeling

by Brandon Getz

His first wife.  Amber was his first wife.  She had brown hair she never brushed and curved-in toes like a dancer’s.  Nights in the cold house, moldy blankets, he would press the bubbled scars on her thighs and shoulders, touch his fingers to the pocks of burns on her hands.  There was no second wife.  Now, this third wife, breathing next to him in her naked sleep, what was her name anyway?  It rhymes with autumn, the way the leaves rustle before winter pushes its pale belly against the back of the Ohio Valley and the cold comes and the snow.  Josephine.  She keeps her hair cropped with sewing shears, no need to brush it, or wash it even, and her hair smells like her, like he remembers her, unwashed in that house outside Wheeling, when the water got shut off and the heat too.
The third wife crawls out of bed, ass flat like a pair of pants no one was wearing.  He hears the faucet, then the coffeepot, its bubbling and steaming.  She hums.  He doesn’t recognize the song, but there was never a radio in that house outside Wheeling, and anyway the electric was always past due, and the one time he’d had a car, a boatlike Buick with shark fins, the radio had been stolen and he had to hum to himself as he drove to keep from going crazy.  Amber would sing songs she’d learned in church, He’s got the whole world in His hands and Gimme that old-time religion, when she rode along to the lake or to the A-Plus Mart out on Route 2.  He wanted to say, Wasn’t it the old-time religion that made bad things happen?  What about the bad things that had happened to them both?  And where was He, and if He had the world in his hands, couldn’t He have saved them?  But they hadn’t been saved, and he had never asked those questions.  Amber, she had a beautiful voice, he remembered, he couldn’t ever tell her to stop singing.  And when he found her in that little house outside Wheeling, he wondered which piece of her held all those songs.  Was it just one piece, and could he scrape that piece off the wall and save it, save the best part of her, the part with all that music inside.
The second wife didn’t even have a name.  She took the Buick to get cigarettes and never came back.  They had been married two days, but when he showed the police the name on the marriage license, they said there wasn’t a woman by that name, and so there wasn’t a second wife, and no one has his Buick somewhere in Ohio or further west.  The third wife had been stuck with a flat tire in the parking lot of the library.  He changed it, and she said things about the books she’d returned.  When the spare was on, she told him to get in, and she offered him a cigarette, and they drove to her place, along the river, with the water running green to the left of them and to the right the black stone wall of the cemetery. 
Amber made coffee with a little bit of cinnamon.  She drank it with whole milk.  Two spoons of sugar.  The third wife—Josephine—drinks it black and likes to tell the waitresses, I’ll just have it black.  She drinks shots, too, when they have money for whiskey and pool and the jukebox at the bar off Route 2.  When Josephine comes back into the bedroom, she’s holding two mugs, steam rising around her breasts.  Nipples like wooden nickels.  Tits he can suck on to forget.  Josephine: why this third wife, and why does she bring him coffee as if she loves him, why is she in this bed.  Amber propped the shotgun against the foot of the bed.  That bed was real cherry wood, carved by her father, and how fucked up was it they had slept in a bed her father built.  Even if he was in prison, even if he’d been convicted and sentenced to twenty years in Northern Correctional, that didn’t mean they should be sleeping in his bed.  After Amber propped the shotgun, someone burned that bed.  He burned it.  After the investigation, he soaked the mattress in gasoline behind that house outside Wheeling and nobody slept in it ever again.
Amber’s father led the meetings in the church basement.  He’s the one who wore the white smock, and he’s the one they all called God, and he’s the one who took the church and the town and its children.  At first, it wasn’t like that.  It was just a message.  Amber’s father had that message, a message from God, and while he was giving that message, in the church basement, a storm came into the town dropping big gray tornadoes.  The Foodland collapsed and trailer parks were uprooted and splayed and cattle were found dead a dozen miles from their pastures.  They listened to Amber’s father then.  God had called them and told them to listen, because what else could a storm like that be but an act of God.  Amber was only a toddler, and Elias was only a toddler, and first Amber’s father took the church and preached for hours each Sunday in the white smock and he baptized the children.  Amber’s father took the church then he took its women, the wives and mothers.  And they felt God in him.  They felt God inside them.  And when he asked for their children, they knew the children would know God, too, and they would be saved.  And Amber was five or six by then, and Elias was five or six, and the other children were seven or nine or thirteen.  It happened in a church outside Wheeling, in a room with construction-paper sheep on the walls, with smiles on their white sheep faces.
Amber’s father was the man who was touched by God, and he touched the town with God’s touch, and he was the one who touched them with the love of God.  In that room in the church outside Wheeling with the sheep and the cardboard cutouts of Jesus and the Apostles and the big yellow crosses with all their names on them, one with Amber’s name and one with Elias’ name too, Amber’s father blessed the other men.  The other men were blessed and they had the touch of God, too.  In that room in the church basement, the lights were turned off and only a little slit of sunlight showed the sheep and Jesus and the crosses and the pale bellies of the men.
The burns were for their sins, because the only language Hell understands is fire.  Amber’s father said this.  His face flashed orange as he lit a cigarette.  He was smiling then.
In this new bed, not the bed built by Amber’s father, which was ash now, ash he had pissed on and spit on and thrown rocks at, until the coals were blue-gray and dead—in this new bed with this new wife, he sees the pink marks on the flesh of his arms and the raised scars shaped like crosses, like Amber’s arms and her back and her shoulders and legs, the way they had been when there was still Amber.  It was the burns that had saved them.  Somebody saw a boy’s hands at the bakery or the cigarette store, and that’s when men came to the church outside Wheeling, different men who didn’t know God or Amber’s father or that God flowed through him.  They didn’t know the church had guns in a locked room in the cellar, and they didn’t know how many children were inside when the shooting started, and they didn’t know how many people were dead when they came in and took the children from the room.  Amber’s father was touched by God and he was saved.  He stood with his arms above his head in his clean white robe until the men from outside pushed him down.  All the men with bellies were on the floor, and the floor was slippery with blood.  Elias almost couldn’t walk, his shoes slipping like that, and he felt Amber’s hand in his hand and they walked together, out of that church, into the white-white sun in the parking lot, where all the men with guns stood by their cars, the red lights going round and round.
The room testified against Amber’s father.  The room knew, and the room said, and the room told the other men what had happened there.  The sheep all knew, the room was saying, This is where He touched them, and This is where they felt God, and God was in them here, in me.  Amber’s father smiled because Amber’s father knew what had happened, and Amber’s father knew he was protected by God.  The mothers wept.  The room said Amber’s father was a bad man.  The other men said he was evil, too, and Amber’s father was sent away, and Elias knew he was still there, up at Northern, reading books and praying and smiling, that big fat fuck with that big fat fucking smile.  That God fuck, fucking God, fucking them, grunting fucking prayers they way he would, the way he probably still did, in his cell, thinking of them and the room. Amen, Amen, Amen.
Amber went to live with a family in Powhatan.  Elias they sent west to Jerusalem, to a big house where boys slept in rows of bunks and worked days in a chicken barn cutting the beaks and legs off the chicks, throwing the dead ones in a big garbage can for the grinder.  Elias was ten years old by then, eleven when Amber showed up with her hair cropped short like a boy’s, telling him to call her Adam.  She wore long sleeves.  They were thirteen when they shared a bunk.  When everyone else was asleep.  And Elias was the one who knew, Elias was the one who knew everything, everything that had happened and everything that would happen, and Elias was the one who knew her, and no one else would ever know her the way he knew her, in that bunk and after. 
There were pieces of her on the windowsill.  There were pieces of her on their sheets.  There were pieces of her on the curtains.  There were pieces of her on his shoes.  There were pieces of her in the mug he had forgotten on the end table.  There were pieces of her in the plastic flowers.
At fifteen, she couldn’t pass for a boy, and they left the big house in Jerusalem at night. Amber got the key from the man who watched the door, and Elias waited until she got the key, and both of them walked up Route 26, Amber with her thumb out and saying she wanted to be a veterinarian someday, how she would help sick horses and sick dogs and sick chickens to make up for all the chicks she’d cut up and thrown away. 
They got a ride as far as Clarington, then another, in the bed of a black pickup, up the river to Wheeling.  The door to Amber’s father’s house was boarded, and someone had painted pervert on the side of the house and someone had painted crosses and someone had painted Andrew Lynch is God and someone had broken all the windows.  That was the first night they slept in Amber’s father’s bed, in that little house outside Wheeling.  They slept with all their clothes on, on his mattress.  They slept without blankets or sheets.  They slept facing each other, her cold hand gripping his. 
Amber hung the curtains and found sheets for the bed.  Amber bought the plastic flowers and the plastic vase at the Goodwill in town.  Amber cooked dinner, and Amber smiled at him, and Amber married him at the courthouse on a Thursday morning, the day she turned eighteen, and Amber even loved him, probably, in that house outside Wheeling, with the words and crosses painted over by now and a little tomato garden in the backyard.
The new bed is her bed, and the house is her house.  Josephine.  She says he can call her Josie, like Josie and the Pussycats, and she purrs when she says it.  Her breath smells like smoke and black coffee.  She touches the crosses on his arm and asks, What are these.  She’s always asking as if he’ll answer.  I love you, she says.  She’s kissing his neck and he’s holding his coffee.  It’s so hot he can feel it through the mug, and if he could drop it, if it fell, if it burned ripples into her thighs and brought pink welts to the surface of her skin, maybe then he could love her.  She hums a song, and he knows this one.  And somewhere someone has the whole world in His hands.  And somewhere someone else is singing.