The only people that came in were truck drivers or tourists on their way to Niagara Falls. You were definitely not a truck driver, but I didn’t peg you for a tourist either. I remember I thought you were wearing pajamas at first—these baggy, bright purple pants with a matching top, long and shapeless. Now when I look back, I think they might have been iron-creased and who the hell irons pajamas anyway?
I watched you walk in and pull a pint of chocolate ice cream from the freezer. Now, there were about 3,000 people in that town and not a single one of them looked like you. I remember you had a long braid that went all the way down your back, and two gold bracelets on each wrist that clinked together when you put the ice cream down on the counter in front of me. I remember your voice, its accent when you asked, “Do you have any spoons?” Foreign. When the cops asked me later if I’d seen you, they showed me a picture, but there were things missing, things I remembered. Like the bruises on your neck and the fatness of your split lip. Familiar.
“Yeah, we got some plastic spoons and forks over there by the microwave,” is what I told you. You paid with a five-dollar bill.
It’s funny the things we remember and the things we forget. Like I remember that your nails were painted red and your knuckles were kind of cut up, like you had been pounding on something hard for a long time. I remember you gave the ice cream and the spoon to a kid sitting on the curb out front. I remember you left her there and went into one of the rooms of the motel across the street. I forget which one. I forget how long you were gone. I forget a lot of things now and most days; this makes it bearable to breathe.
All 3,000 people in that town knew that my mom got hit. Maybe they didn’t know how much she got hit, or how hard, but they knew. Maybe they knew and chose not to see. I didn’t know anything about you—except what I did, and what I did, I never should have known. Foreign and familiar.
I remember the sound of the gunshot. Faint, like someone setting off a firecracker way out in the field. There was no one else staying at the motel, probably no one even at the front desk, so it was only me that heard it. Me and the kid eating ice cream on the curb. Neither of us moved.
I remember you pulled up in a black BMW. I pumped gas all summer in that shithole town and never saw another one of those the whole time. I watched you through the glass of the gas station door, and I knew it was you even though you looked different. You slung that garbage bag over your shoulder and marched with it behind the building, returned empty-handed. I remember you had a nice body, now that I could see it in a tank top and shorts. Long brown legs, choppy black hair just covering your neck. So no one would see. So no one would ask. Foreign and familiar.
You put that little girl in the back seat of your car and the two of you drove away. When I was closing up, I took all the trash ’round back and hoisted the bag into the dumpster. I took a bag and I left a bag and I never told a damn soul. I sat in my dad’s car and watched the motel sign flicker for a while, sort of just to see if anything would happen, but mostly ’cause I didn’t want to go home.
I remember that the cops were over there when I got to work the next day. They put up a bunch of yellow tape and wheeled a body out wrapped in black plastic. Two of them came by with that picture of you and one of them opened up the dumpster, then they both stood around smoking and staring at the motel. It would be the murder motel for years after that, and every summer the kids would change the story a little just to keep things interesting.
I haven’t lived in that town for a long time and I don’t think about it a whole lot. There’s not much worth remembering. Every so often, I go back to visit my mom and sometimes I wonder if she ever thought about putting me in the car and driving away. My secret hope is that she has, even just once, imagined holding a gun in her twice-fractured hands.
I usually stop to fill up at the gas station before heading home. I don’t have to keep going back there, but I want to remember you. I want you to know I gave you what I could, when I saw, when I knew. Now I take my own kids up to the lake over the long weekends and there’s memory lurking in the heat. My eyes sting when we sit around the fire and I remember when I burned a bag of bloody purple clothes, four bracelets, and a hacked-off braid in the backyard while my mom iced a black eye standing at the kitchen sink. I blame my tears on the smoke and watch the holiday fireworks explode over the water, loud as gunshots echoing in the night.