BY MELANIE FINN
She is young, 22, her make-up smudged, racoon-ish. She wears a tank top and jeans, unwashed, bra straps showing, rubbing her bare shoulders. Her shoes are the giveaway: scuffed, leaky sneakers, laces undone. I see her clearly, as she passes me, oh, I take her in, the smell of her, dandruff, cigarettes, the clinging odor of closed, dark rooms, of a creature kept underground.
Her shoulders, I think, should have sunburn, should be exposed to the sun by a lake somewhere, a reservoir where kids like her go and drink too much and plot their escape. Not ferreted in, as she is, room to car to room, her skin the color of mushrooms.
He’s ratcheted to her side, black t-shirt, low-slung jeans, a facial hair arrangement that hints at individuation. He has a sense of his particular self, his own life, his face and he looks at himself in the mirror, in that brief plateau between the high and the jones, when he feels, loves, regrets, yearns, hopes intensely. He takes a razor and chooses the side-burns, the narrow strip on the cleft of his chin. Then he erases himself with smack.
They move past me, they don’t even notice me, they are thinking only of the second floor, Skink or Bunty or Shifty, whatever his name, with his wares, whatever they are, bundles, eight balls, dime bags, tabs. I know because I have been in such motels, seeking such wares from such Buntys. I was once familiar with the underneath.
But now I am here, hand-in-hand with my dazzling twin daughters, I’m an actual paying guest at this motel, I will shower in it, sleep in it. Tomorrow I will get in my new Subaru Outback and we will drive away. No one will ask me to suck dick if I can’t pay.
So, this moment, her passing me, is where a book begins, because she turns slightly. Seconds—all this is happening is perhaps five seconds; we forget how the brain attends on many levels, and a book is about opening up those seconds, exploiting those levels and using the dark matter within as you wish. There is no exact word for this process; theft, manipulation, disfigurement—none quite convey the ruthless appropriation by a writer of another person’s experience, the turning and twisting it, like a glass blower, into narrative. In those moments, I am hardly human, I’m a soul-stealer.
This girl, my prey, I cannot see her eyes, they’re buried inside clumpy mascara, but I know she regards me, I have this sense she is trying to speak, she has a message. A plea?
She turns, moves on, as if on wheels, pulled by steel cables, into the motel. I turn, on my wheels, pulled by my cables. I see her child. He is sitting in the back seat of her shit-box Pajero, no seat belt, a hat and jacket, filthy and too big. He is five, his eyes gone like a war child, pin pricks. I experience two completely disparate sets of feelings. As a mother: sorrow, anger, pity, concern—does this girl want me to do something, call someone, save her, save the child? As a writer, I am already shamelessly conjuring the lines: of course there was a kid… with what was left of her smacked-out brain, with some remnant of her mother’s love, she’d left him in the car, her child, her asset. She wasn’t selling him. Yet. She wasn’t that far down. Yet. The “yet” was out there, she could perhaps glimpse it in the distance like a dark tower, and therein the dark walls lay all the terrible things she was capable of.
Melanie Finn was born and raised in Kenya until age 11, when she moved with her family to Connecticut. She lived and worked in six different countries as a freelance journalist and screenwriter for 20 years. In 2004, her first novel, Away From You, was published to international acclaim. The following year, she and her husband, wildlife filmmaker Matt Aeberhard, moved to a remote region of Tanzania to make DisneyNature’s haunting flamingo epic, Crimson Wing. During the filming, Melanie became the medic to the local Masai community and established the Natron Healthcare Project. Her second novel, The Gloaming, was a New York Times Notable Book and a finalist for the Vermont Book Award. The Underneath is set in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, where she now lives with Matt and their twin daughters.