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Song without Words

Samantha Couchoud
My car needed to have its oil changed. I could feel it as I drove, could feel the gummy, jerking stutters as I shifted gears. Could feel a tug each time I accelerated, a reluctant hitch with each brake as my old station wagon lumbered through the neighborhood. The wood-paneled exterior and bulky metal frame fit in with the squat cinderblock houses covered in stucco and low-angled tin roofs. With one last shudder, my wagon labored up the clay-and-gravel driveway and lurched in behind the Astro. Bett, a dog the product of so many breeds no one had ever attempted to classify her as anything except a mutt, was already waiting next to my door. I didn’t want to look into those innocent eyes that held all the promise of love springing eternal. I inhaled. And shoved open my door, the swinging metal catching on the hinge with a creek and forcing Bett to bound away—granting me enough time to haul myself out of the burgundy leather seat and up the aged gray wooden steps to tap on the screen door. No matter how lightly I tapped, it banged. Bett put her head underneath my hand. I very purposefully did not glance toward the rusted-out pick-up truck that sat in the yard. I could hear Grace and Faith screeching that someone was at the door and the ruckus trying to be the first one to get to it. The piano clanged as one of them bumped it, and apparently Faith won the impromptu race to play hostess when she swung the door open wide; it nearly collided with the hutch that hid behind it. She beamed up at me through the screen. “Dana!” I tried to smile back. “Hey, Faith. Your sister ready?” Chastity answered my question when she came around the wall that separated the living room from the kitchen, navigating passed the buffet, the slat-backed rocking chair, the piano bench with pieces of sheet music peeking out from under the lid, and an obscenely orange recliner to grab her denim purse that hung from the hook on the wall. She didn’t smile. “Where are you going, Chas-ity?” Faith and Grace, twins, were six. “The library.” Of course we weren’t—and neither were we going to the midnight showing of Twilight like we were going to tell our parents later. She pushed her hands down the arms of her periwinkle knit sweater; it lumped the cotton plaid

button-up she wore underneath it and sat bunched around her waist, sloping off her shoulders to dangle unevenly over the top of her long khaki skirt. “Can I come?” Grace asked as Faith nodded ‘til her curls bounced. “No.” She closed the door behind her, jerking it to make sure it sealed. Sometimes the rubber around the doorway stuck the door open and you had to yank it. She kept her head down and ignored Bett’s wagging tail as she opened the passenger door just wide enough to slip into the seat. I scratched behind Bett’s black, shaggy ears, started the engine—which grunted— then backed out, the wheels crunching the gravel into the clay. I saw Chastity’s eyes flick up once, and I knew what she had been looking at. I was tempted to turn just a little too sharply. *** A dozen songs that neither one of us sang to and a thousand long-leaf pines we didn’t see later, I pulled the Buick into the parking lot of the insignificant, unobtrusive clinic. Two neatly trimmed shrubs sat in a bed of red cedar chips on either side of a darkly-tinted door with white lettering. The names had letters after them, but I didn’t want to know what any of them were. The downward-thirdsounding tone pinged in the near empty waiting room. The receptionist only looked up when Chastity cleared her throat over the wailing country music the receptionist had blaring out of the radio sitting next to her tape dispenser. Long nails with a hibiscus painted on each raked back bleached-blonde bangs. The window scraped as she slid it open. “Appointment?” “Yes… at 3 o’clock?” “Are you scheduled for a procedure?” I cringed and focused on the pens disguised as flowers sitting in a clumsily painted terra cotta pot. Chastity nodded. “Name?” “Chastity Reynolds?” The receptionist’s head jerked up, her lazy, disinterested eyes suddenly intent on Chastity’s blue ones, then burst out laughing. It was brash, and shrill, and went on

forever like those nightmares in movies. I fervently wished I was in a nightmare. Pinch. Chastity’s delicate, ladylike blush turned into a flood of color pouring into her face, ears, and neck. Her fingers started twisting her purse strap. An older woman in lavender scrubs opened the door to the lobby. “Jen, what the hell—” Jen’s laughter grew more raucous, more mocking. “Oh my God, Janice—this girl is having a procedure today, and—holy shit—her name is Chastity! Oh my God! Of all the names!” She continued cackling as she shoved a clipboard with the name of some drug stamped on the handle across the counter. “Fill out all the highlighted areas, Chastity,” she sneered, then chuckled. “The doctor will be with you shortly.” I turned away and saw Janice glower at Jennifer before she looked at me. I could see an apology in the melting lines of her face. *** I had given up on trying to read the book I’d brought with me, a book Chastity’s mother, my Sunday school teacher and the Pastor’s wife, had given to me, and tucked it back into my bag. It didn’t feel right reading it here. The magazines all seemed to be taunting or mocking me in turn, the covers plastered with gorgeous woman and advice I knew I’d never have reason to take. The variegated carpet was busy arranging itself into cartoons, apparently in a contest with the popcorn ceiling to see how many ridiculous faces they could make at each other. The door at the end of the lobby opened, and Janice came through it. “Dana? Do you want to come back?” No. No, I didn’t. I followed her around a few corners, the sterility burning my nose and worsening the headache I was blaming on the fluorescents. Janice plunked a brown folder into a brown plastic bin on the wall by the door and opened it. Chastity, so red the last time I had seen her as she’d disappeared through the door I’d just walked through three hours earlier, was somehow both green and white. Her tightly braided hair was starting to come loose and fuzzy strands were sticking to her face. Her body was still under the hospital blankets. “She asked to be sedated, so she’s going to be a little out of it.” Janice’s voice was too loud in the small space when she came back pushing a wheelchair. One of the wheels

squeaked. She did a few nurse things, holding Chastity’s wrist in a pinch between three fingers. “You can sit there ‘til she comes to.” She pointed at a chair. The purple vinyl had split down the middle, and I knew it was going to scratch. I sat, and stared at Chastity. The door clicked closed, rattling a little against the door frame. 216 beeps of the monitor later, Chastity opened her eyes and I was by her side. She looked up at the funny faces I knew were staring down at us from the ceiling. “Can I go now, Dana?” “I think so, but the nurse didn’t say, exactly.” Beep. Beep. Beep. “Are you feeling ok?” I almost laughed. It was the only question to ask, but it was not enough. And too much. I wanted to laugh until I cried and cry until I laughed again, or until I had cried enough to wash away the need for tears. I knew I would never run out. “Ready to get going, ladies?” “Yes, please.” Chastity’s blue lips barely moved. She signed more paperwork and was given more pamphlets, and Janice said some things about rest and fluids and antibiotics. Then she handed Chastity a vial filled with red, the lines on her face saying she didn’t really want to give it up. “Are you sure you want this, hon?” Chastity’s jaw slid forward, and I knew she was clenching her teeth. Her lips thinned into an inked dash as she took the vial, her fingers closing, clutching, around it, shaking. “Ok, well, then.” Janice pushed the handicap button to open the door to the lobby. “Take care, sweetie. Everything’s’ been taken care of, and it’s all in the packets. Take it easy, now.” The slow half-melodic downward-third chimed, and it annoyed me as I went out to unlock the Buick. ****

I sat down on the pine picnic table next to Chastity, tapping the trowel on the splintered wood by my thigh. Bits of mud and grass fell onto the table. I brushed them off. “Do you think we should say anything?” She asked. I looked back at the spot under the live oak where we had buried the little wooden box she had gotten from Wal-Mart and painted with day lilies. I shrugged, knowing she could feel it and tapped the hand trowel again. One clod of dirt stuck, clung to it, stubborn. A mockingbird called down from the sprawling arms of the live oak. Ducks chattered on the shore of the pond—I knew they were hoping we had bread. Chastity started humming quietly, and after the first few hushed, broken, weeping notes, I hummed along. Amazing grace… how sweet the sound… that saved a wretch like me…