Two Hurts
K Chess

I once wrote a song for my band about going back home to Texas to visit my estranged father when he was dying. It's a song about how you can sometimes find in yourself the capacity to forgive the worst hurts, even when the other person doesn't deserve your forgiveness.

I'm actually from Nebraska.

The father in the song belonged to a friend of mine. This was a couple of years ago, and we were living together in an apartment in Lincoln when he heard from his mom that the old man was really going and he'd better get there as soon as possible, so I took off work and drove him all the way down I-35 to the suburbs of Fort Worth. That's the only real part in it that I had. My friend sat with his father in the room for two days, holding his hand while all of the processes gradually stopped.

For two days, I too was there, but not actually there. I was sitting in the smokers' garden at the hospital on a granite bench in the sun. I don't even smoke.

After that, in Lincoln, I discovered that I had been fired from my job, and my friend helped me out with rent for two months while I found another one, but when the lease was up I moved in with a girlfriend, and later we fell out of touch and I heard that he went out to the East Coast. Later still — two bands later — I wrote that song I mentioned, a song which became popular at our concerts. Local crowds would cheer when they recognized the opening chords. Unexpectedly, it began to get college-radio play. My friend whose story it was heard it one day on WCUW all the way in Massachusetts. He called me up, yelled at me for half an hour.

He said that I had betrayed him.

He hasn't talked to me since.

It reminds me. I have a cousin who used to spend a lot of time with the Narcotics Anonymous sponsor of his high school buddy, Dov. The sponsor was a really neat guy, the two of them agreed, a good listener. Though the sponsor was significantly older than my cousin and Dov, who were both sixteen, they treated him like a peer. They all used to hang out every weekend. Dov had quit using and seemed happy; things were good. One night, the three friends went and got matching tattoos — a Chinese symbol, something to do with a style of Kung-Fu they practiced.

As an adult, my cousin found out that the sponsor had been abusing Dov sexually. The sponsor had a history of this type of crime, apparently. He was not even a genuine addict; he had joined N.A. as a way to meet vulnerable boys.

The tattoo of the Chinese symbol is blurry with age now, blue-black. It is positioned low on my cousin's bicep where it is exposed when he wears a T-shirt. It's hard to hide, impossible to explain, but everyone thinks they want to know the story.

What does it mean, they ask him.

What does it mean.

When I stare out into a crowd beyond the glare of the stage lights, I think of us — of me and my friend — in the car on the way back up from Fort Worth after his father died. I don't try to remember what we talked about. Forgiveness. Forgetfulness. Instead I picture the highway ahead open and dusty, my friend's fingers absently drumming on the center console and his eyes closed against the painful brightness of a day when everything has started again, different.

The song I wrote sounds so personal that the people who admire it nowadays ask me if it hurts, when I play it.

Yes, I tell them. Every time.

K Chess is in the MFA program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. This is one of her first published stories.

Detail of art on main page courtesy of Howard Ignatius.

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