I am ersatz, a word I’ve wanted to use for the longest time. Can I say that I’m an ersatz? I’m an inferior substitute, a sad excuse you might say. I may be false or dishonest, in terms of society’s rules, although not unto myself—I’m a thief, a simple burglar really. And I’m something of an anomaly, a paradox, if you will, will allow me to use two more words I’ve wanted to for some time now. I’m a moral, ethical sort of thief. I adhere to a strict code of conduct.
And I’m also wealthy, at least relatively speaking, which is another irony since I’ve been working in the prison wood-shop for the past nineteen months, twenty-two days earning about a dollar and seventy-three cents per day, not the kind of fortune one salts away for an early retirement. Still, I’m fond of the traditional-values feel of the term, which also appeals to my sense of irony, since isn’t salt about the most abundant thing on the planet?
But I mentioned my wealth, so I can afford to ponder the linguistics—Christ, it’s a whole degree-bearing course of study at the state university not seven miles from here, though of course I can’t go there—and like I said, I’ve also got the time to ponder. In fact sometimes I imagine myself a professor of Philosophy or Linguistics or Ethics, in a state-funded think-tank, where I’m fed and clothed and fully supported, a place where the charter mission statement, perhaps on a bronze plaque beneath a statue, is the Latin infinitive to ponder, whatever that word might be.
That whole vision is not far from the truth, really, since right here in Central I’ve got three squares and a reasonably comfortable cot, a hands-on and not mentally taxing, satisfying employ (I operate a lathe), and a small living space that, while not the ivory tower of academia, is certainly simple and sparse enough to fit well as the milieu of a creative type, an artist perhaps. (Forgive me that, another word I’ve been trying to work into everyday conversation; and of the type, like the others, not so much appreciated by those around here.)
Forgive my digressions. As my high school English teacher, Mr. Frey, used to scratch in the margins of my essays, and as the court-appointed head-shrinker used to tell me here, months ago before I grew impatient and clammed up, Excuse me, but what’s your point? Precisely, doctor, I wish to discuss my code (and some of its implicit ironies), to explain my aforementioned wealth (its source, its meaning to other relevant parties), and then, quite frankly, having said my piece, to be left the fuck alone. Pardon my language.
A possible side benefit I’d hope would be some sort of personal epiphany if that’s not too strong a word (and if such understanding can result from casual pondering). Some realization for myself of what in my case has so many local folks, many of whom I know or know of or know their brothers and cousins (this being a small town and many of us have worked together, gone to school together, even church), what has so many locals so up in arms. This is no Unabomber treatise, and I’d hardly like it printed in the New York Times, but I sure wouldn’t mind, after I get out of here, to find some place like Ted did, Idaho or the Dakotas someplace, where people pretty much have their own codes, too. And where folks leave each other pretty much well enough alone.
The prison officials tell me, and it’s right here on page 3 of the News-Dispatch, that there’s at least a dozen picketers outside even now, protesting my release. Protesting, too or moreso, the transfer of funds that should be taking place some time this morning, the twenty-five grand (less, of course, taxes and lawyer’s fees, so that I’ll have in the end a deposit slip for about seven thousand and change, this my aforementioned wealth). The simple and legal, but also ethical, payment for service I provided, namely the “information leading to the arrest of the person responsible” for the “slaying” (this of course the media’s word, and one I was in no hurry to use), let’s just say the killing of a gas station convenience store clerk, January 26 of this year. At the Key-Mart, one of eighteen such establishments owned but not operated by Harrison Keymore III of Stone Mountain; the attempted robbery and murder taking place at the Store #17, corner of Woodstock and Cousins Streets, Bynum, Georgia.
Now I don’t know Harrison Keymore from Adam, but I went to high school with Candy, the deceased, and I had a pretty good idea who was responsible when I first heard about it here in the clink. A guy my brother’s age, three years ahead of Candy and me in school, a sociopath—a term I picked up from the therapist here—with no code at all and a mean streak clear through, name of Pinkerton (like the famous detective, ha!) whom everybody called Pinky. (And note the object-case pronoun usage, Mr. Frey.)
Anyway, when my brother paid me a visit here back in February, we talked about the incident, and he mentions casually how Pinky surprisingly paid off his annual Super Bowl debts that next week. (Perhaps Pinky’s only redeeming quality, his thread of a code: for years he bet on the Bills, and then anyone who played Dallas.) My brother tells me of the shooting, how there were no known witnesses, and how the owner of the chain of stores had put up this reward. This Keymore III, who was running for state congress and probably had insurance covering all of it anyway. So the slick businessman gets some good public image points whether the killer is found or not, but still the tightwad in him (and this how he got rich in the first place, taking good care of the family fortune) would hate to have to pay up.
So while most in town suspected Pinky, no witnesses and no murder weapon meant no crime. But that’s when I started pondering this, in the time I had here, spinning my lathe grinding chair and table-legs at a rate that astonished even myself, trying to get in the head of this code-less Pinky. I even ran the whole thing past the shrink here—a man himself, admittedly “fascinated by the criminal mind,” who no doubt has tax shelters and undeclared earnings well in excess of the reward pittance I should by now have in my account. To this doc I related Pinky’s penchant for firearms, his collection the local police had confiscated and fired every one, looking for a match for the bullet that killed our high school almost-friend Candy. I asked the shrink if such a character, a sociopath, I reminded the doctor, would be likely to dispose of the gun used in the robbery. He agreed that it was possible that such a character might have difficulty throwing a sentimental item such as that off a bridge into murky waters. Might he not hide it, instead, I offered, to the widening eyes of my therapist.
I continued pondering the case for several weeks, until an article in the “police blotter” section of the Dispatch caught my eye. Deer hunting season ended January 1st, and yet some brazen local youths had ignored their calendars and continued shooting Bambis well past the legal date. I guessed—and what did I have to lose?—that Pinky was of this ilk, that he’d be hunting perhaps even still. And that a favorite gun might be safely stashed in a deer-stand on his family’s seventy acres west of town. I hatched a deal with the D.A. and prison officials which would greatly reduce my own prison time if my hunches (of course I described them as certainties) turned out to be accurate. Which in fact they were, nearly exactly, to the degree that had I not been incarcerated at the time of the murder I’d have been brought up on charges myself, as at least an accomplice, or how else could I know so much?
Now I contend that I’d have done the moral thing and supplied the information no matter about the reward, and no matter whether it could help my own situation as it did, in reducing my 36 months to slightly more than twenty. I contend this, but I’m honest, and I of course can’t know this for certain. The local columnist who wrote the article I’m looking at now, the one condemning me more even than Pinky himself, invokes the term “honor among thieves,” wondering to her loyal readers if I should have perhaps protected my “fellow ne’er-do-well,” my high school “partner in crime,” protected him with my silence. Clumping criminals like an inferior race. Give me a fucking break.
Which gets me around, though, to my code and the code-less around me. Now Dr. Freud in his penthouse office here (overlooking the chain-link, razor-wired grandeur), a suite full of taxpayer-endowed plants and numbered-lithograph Rorschachs on the walls, he tells me that I shouldn’t be concerned with what other people think. Which to a large degree I’m not, if those others would just let me alone. But they won’t. Not him, not the lawyers, not the picketers outside, not the newspaper writers with their screaming headlines of indignation, “Crime Pays in Bynum.” Nor does my own family, nor Candy’s. Nobody seems to have the tiniest understanding of my situation, yet they won’t just let me take my few bucks and hopes for a new life and head to Idaho. So I’m appealing, I guess, for a little understanding. What’s so funny?
In the interest of fairness (one of the prime values in my code, along with trueness to oneself), let me to the best of my knowledge present a few of my detractors—
The judge: Hating his job the day he had to rule in my favor, that there was nothing in the reward offer that prevented me, a criminal, from getting paid. (Law enforcement officers pay off informants every day, my lawyer pointed out.)
My lawyer: Who told that columnist he rued the day he passed the Bar, that he’d one day be defending the likes of me, but adding that he was defending the Constitution, “even when it protects the rights of vermin”; such a crock, from a guy who snorts coke, slugs his kids, and has to weasle himself out of a drunk driving arrest once a year.
The columnist: Who champions the just cause, condemns, say, animal testing, pays a grand for a purebred-AKC-registered, when they put down a dozen a week at the pound; who condemns alcoholics and addicts but couldn’t live without her sleep aids and back spasm medications (sore, no doubt, from the crosses she bears).
And all the rest of them, who condemn me while they fill out the insurance claims for their stuff, calling that Cracker Jack broach a priceless heirloom and that handsaw a $200 Makita. Those who take two newspapers from the box for only one quarter, who pitch their beer cans and cigarette butts, not to mention their washers and stoves, by the roadside, who pass their grudges on like chain letters (while maintaining a crisp copy for themselves).
And forgotten in all this: this lynch-mob after me has forgotten Pinky. Pitiful, unchangeable Pinky, who blew away an old friend and probably laughed. Who will get thirty years and serve maybe six, who will be out before you’ve gotten your own shoplifting kids out of the fifth grade. Who’s got a mean streak wide as I-95. But who won’t be in Idaho, I bet.
In grade school, we used to call our town “Buy-none,” and the group of us—my brother and me, Candy, Pinky, Jerry (who later became a cop, ha!), and Cal who moved away before high school—had a pact to pay for as little as possible. Candy (his real name was George Herman, named for the Babe himself, and like him in some ways) used to steal mostly sweets, chocolate bars usually, gum, little stuff. It’s amazing he ever got the job at Key-mart, where when he died he was standing behind the counter munching peanut M&Ms and reading the letters in Penthouse. (My brother, who wasn’t there of course—there were no witnesses—told me this, and said he heard it from Jerry, who heard it from a cop friend who was first to the scene. Blood and M&Ms and Candy slumped over the counter, a hand on a glossy page that began, “I never thought I’d be writing your magazine, but . . .”) Candy used to lift stuff from the Key-mart all the time, magazines and beers and motor oil, would sell it at discount prices around town, and then tell his manager about young shoplifters, whom he could describe quite well from his own experience. “Shrinkage,” that was the retail term for the loss; Candy was responsible for a great deal of shrinkage in his twenty-seven years.
My brother and Cal and Pinky used to go for bigger stuff, for baseball gloves from the big discount store at the shopping center, chicken and burgers from the cafeteria-style diner at the mall, things they stuffed in their jackets. I was very selective even back then, taking only from those I had some score to settle with. I worked at a dry cleaner’s for a time—when I was thirteen and fourteen. I’ve always worked. And people used to come in demanding service, pounding the counter bell, pointing to spots and wrinkles, demanding one-hour service in their busier, more-important-than-others’ lives. Telling me, “Kid, let me talk to your boss,” when I was doing most of the work while he played golf.
People put their addresses on the cleaning receipts, and I’d go to their houses later and grab a lawn chair or a couple of their pink flamingos, never keeping the stuff but arranging it neatly, like the ensembles in furniture showrooms, in the woods at the dead end of our street. If the people worked in stores, I’d go there and take something. Sometimes I’d enter their houses through an open window or a screened porch door, walk around in their cool, dark homes while they were working. I’d assess their belongings and then grab something small but meaningful. Something they’d later ask their wives, “Hey, did you do something with my fountain pen?” And later on, when I started taking stuff I’d sell or pawn, I’d only lift stuff I knew was insured. TVs and stereos were easy, computers sometimes (I’d always leave the disks), golf clubs and power tools from garages. It was remarkably easy, really.
In later years, sometimes I’d follow people home, someone who cut me off in traffic, thoughtless folks I saw pitch litter out their car windows. When I worked in restaurants, I’d note the names from credit cards of patrons who stiffed me or treated me like a servant, so superior were they. I could usually find their addresses in the phone book. Simple. Maybe when their stuff turned up missing, they might have pondered the possible connection, the one I’d made.
The shrink here tells me my emotional growth was stunted about the time I left off working at the dry cleaner’s all those years ago. Dr. Freud tells me that when my friends grew up, and grew out of the thieving stage a lot of kids go through, that I graduated to higher-ticket items while they moved on to the adult world of responsibility. I ask him about Candy, a petty thief who’s dead, about Jerry who can’t pay his mortgage, who gets a few bucks a month to let gambling go on all over town, whose wife cheats with one of his neighbors. About Pinky, or his dad, a tax attorney who finds every client a loophole. He says I’m incapable of real friendship or a serious relationship, because I never learned how to take responsibility, and that I don’t know my identity. I tell him that’s what I’m doing here, is taking responsibility, and pondering who I am. And as for emotional growth, I feel things. I feel plenty, I tell him.
One of my last days here, maybe my last spinning the lathe. Maybe I’ll buy myself one with the reward money, and set it up in my shack in Idaho, and make the most beautiful furniture you ever saw. Tables of oak and elm and ash—I must’ve told you, I believe in wood; it’s absolutely true to itself—cabinets of knotty pine and cedar, rockers maybe of birch, something you don’t see around here. What I hate is that particle-board furniture that I see in everybody’s houses. The bookshelves and cabinets and tables with the plastic wood-grain veneer, it’s everywhere. Get it wet and it bubbles and peels like sunburned skin. So goddamned phony. We all are, I tell the shrink. I am ersatz. And you can print that in your column.
LATIN FOR PONDER earned Second Place in the 2008 Competition.
Gregg Cusick wrote his first real story, about “Nag, the Horse,” when he was nine. Some years later, in 1990, he received an MA in English-Creative Writing from North Carolina State University. His stories have appeared in Chelsea, The Crescent Review, Alligator Juniper, the Raleigh News & Observer, The Mochila Review, and elsewhere. He tutors literacy and tends bar in Durham, NC.
Monday, March 16, 2009
I am ersatz, a word I’ve wanted to use for the longest time. Can I say that I’m an ersatz? I’m an inferior substitute, a sad excuse you might say. I may be false or dishonest, in terms of society’s rules, although not unto myself—I’m a thief, a simple burglar really. And I’m something of an anomaly, a paradox, if you will, will allow me to use two more words I’ve wanted to for some time now. I’m a moral, ethical sort of thief. I adhere to a strict code of conduct.
Sunday, March 15, 2009
The body arrives unblemished. Beneath its surface, he senses an undefined entity. He tries to put on finger on it, reaching past the adornment, the prim efficiency of her tight pearl gloves that look like they belong to another era. He feels the swift bind of them, but it is another moment before the sensation reaches him. It is when the ramble of the air conditioning slows down that it comes to him.
There, running the river of the corpse, is a thread of sensuality. In all of his postmortem makeovers — the object of everyday life adhered to the body in an effort to sweeten death — he has never felt this. It brings a welling of liquid beneath his tongue, a small pulse to the glands in his neck. Ashamed, he pulls himself back into the narrow line of his profession. Swiftly covering the body, he tries to make it smell, at least, like the others. When the injections are complete he locks the funeral home and goes home to his wife.
Inside the sedate shadows of their house, he sees her office door closed; she is with a patient. Above the ledge of the door sit a wooden plaque, the etching of distant hills. They had gotten it on their honeymoon, in California, when their wine hunger had boosted them and their lips had chattered at the sight of the fertile green slopes. They had taken in each other with a tight-breathed urgency, the days giddy with not only the future, but the immediate past of themselves.
He feels, impulsively, the need to place his palms on his wife’s lower back. Instead he moves into the kitchen, the weight of what he has to tell her slowing him down. Then he sits, stalled and silent, on the floor of the kitchen, waiting for her to emerge.
Behind her desk she listens as the patient lays himself out piece by piece. Sometimes she knows what to do with these fragments, which ones to mold and hand back. Others she does not. These patients are the ones she can hear at night, their voices slipping through the air vent of her office. From there, they travel through the internal paths of their house, reaching her in the sleepless hours. She had asked her husband once, whispering close to the thick band of his neck, if he heard them. His eyes had collapsed ever so slightly at his answer, but she had seen and chose not to ask again.
When her patient departs, she finds her husband in this kitchen, mouth resting on the rim of his blue mug. She notices there is nothing in it.
“Do you want me to make a pot?” She nods at the coffee machine.
He shakes his head.
“What’s the matter?”
“A body today.”
She pauses, waiting as she is trained, for more.
He continues, finally, when the wait has slipped close to her lungs. “You know her.”
“Who is it?”
“A patient of yours. Susan McKinley.”
She is not surprised, but stops her movement anyway. She knows of the double mastectomy, the chemotherapy, the desire to live and then let it go. She heard directly from Susan herself. But something in Susan’s voice their last session had lingered with her, confusing the direction of her thoughts.
“The memorial service is tomorrow, if you want to go.”
She declines with a short shake of her head.
“I’d like it if you went.”
She is surprised at the request.
“I didn’t know her that well, is all.” She responds.
“You were her psychiatrist. How could you not know her? If you didn’t know who she was, who did?”
“Maybe no one.”
She continues with the coffee preparation as the silence creeps between them. She knows she has just shut the door but cannot reach for the handle. Instead she inhales the scent of freshly ground beans. When she turns around he is gone and she can feel that he has abandoned the whole house. He will go back to the funeral home, she knows, unable to resist the tide that draws him there.
She leaves the coffee untouched and walks up the back stairwell to their bedroom. In front of the closet she plucks through a line of clothes. The sapphire silk shirt she chooses hardens her skin, the black pants cutting against her knees. They feel honest against her body, tight enough to confine the pulse in her belly without erasing its presence. After running her fingers through her hair she leaves without turning toward the mirror.
Outside the air holds the first breath of late fall, murmurs of cold letting themselves loose prematurely. As she turns the bend of their street, the funeral home comes into sight. Sitting at an angle against its brick neighbors, she notices immediately what her husband refuses to see; the decaying paint like a worn summer tan, the neon sign at odds with the building’s structural dignity. It had belonged originally to a doctor in the time of unanesthetized patients and experimental medicine; a house born into linear progressions of a life.
Inside, the air quickly transforms. It is always this way here, as if the home itself has learned the art of respect. Schooled in the etiquette of mourning, her husband had colored the walls and floors in tones appropriate for grief. Halfway down the hall to his office, she turns toward the light emerging from the slumber room. Inside is Susan.
From the doorway, the body appears to be shrouded in red, floating in a liquid uterus. Stepping inside, she realizes it is only an illusion of the coffin’s interior. Susan lies inside, the buttons of her shirt gripped to the tip of her neck, two spots of rouge on her cheeks. She wonders if her husband did Susan’s makeup, the rest subtly acceptable yet not capturing the correct essence.
She reaches toward the face to fix it, but finds her hand on Susan’s shirt instead. Her fingers slide the pearls through the slits, the release an indulgent breath.
On automation, she is unable to stop them from an instinctive descent to the bottom. When there are no more buttons to let loose, she opens the flaps of the shirt. Someone has put a bra on Susan, flesh-colored and sagging like aged skin. Snapping the front hook, the sound echoes through the room.
The scars are a baby-skin pinkness, not the polished blaze she had imagined. Running the lines of Susan’s chest, she searches for the loss her patient had feverishly voiced.
“War,” Susan used to say. ‘I am at war with my body.” On softer days, days of respite where the pain was muted, Susan would look head on and say “All’s fair in love and war, they say.”
Unable to feel Susan’s destruction directly, there is instead the defeat of Susan’s husband, Mark. The way, maybe, his tongue had run the lengths of her scars to express that she was still whole to him. And then on her naval, a moment of jealousy so black she has to lift her hand away, away from the center of Susan’s life; Mark and her two baby boys, digging through the abyss she has left them in.
She wants to go to her husband now, but cannot make herself move. Lowering her face toward the two quarter-moons she tries to match her eyes against them. Before she can, her lips have reached the coolness of Susan’s skin, the smell of formaldehyde potent. The skin is slick, unfriendly, but she does not lift her head, instead turning it in an underwater slowness until her ear fades into Susan’s chest. It is only in the wait, when she is aware of its silence, that she can uncouple from the corpse.
Her husband is in the doorway.
“I don’t want to try anymore. I can’t," she says, not meeting his eyes.
She feels a piece of anger roll toward him. What else have they been trying for, if not this? The war with her own body to conceive lost repeatedly.
“For a baby. A baby.”
“I don’t want it anymore. That’s it.”
That’s it? his eyes question. He moves past her to the coffin. She expects to see his fingers tremble, shake like leaves falling in their last moment, but they remain steady.
“Are you coming tomorrow?” Is all he asks after replacing the last button.
All she can do is nod, able, at least, to give him this.
With her agreement hanging between them she departs. He stands over the body, staring into Susan’s eyes. He is not surprised at the depth of them, the consistency that remains alive, for he sees it often; the way they bind to the last moments of the world. But he is taken still with the carnal sense of the body and how the image of his wife’s lips on it has not erased his own urgency. When he saw her fingers sing along Susan’s skin the compulsion that swept through him had again been shameful. He had managed to shed the quick and painful desire before she turned toward him.
Before leaving, he brushes his knuckles against Susan’ cheeks. It is only when he wipes the rouge off that he feels it can be right, that tomorrow might bring him a separate story.
Back in the shadows of their house, he cannot take his eyes from the objects of their collective past. In their possessions he can only see the five years they have been trying. I don’t want to try anymore, she said, and he knows he has to shape that into something that can fit into the palm of his hand. He needs to take from his wife her knowledge of how to veer a mind from the path it has been traveling.
But when he arrives in the bedroom, back-lit by bathroom light, he sees that the shut in her eyes is deliberate. The rigidity in her limbs is not against him, he understands, but for him.
In the morning the space between them settles into a low turbulence, a jostling she finds comforting as she digs through the closet. This time she chooses a dejected navy dress, the timeline of it instantly apparent. Four years it has lived in there untouched, bought one year after the trying began.
All of this time passed and they had not gone for help. She knew early on her inability to face the machines, the doctor’s dense fingers; she does not want them, above everything, to feel what she does not have. They had argued about it, thick words that temporarily choked the halls of their home. And then he had conceded, falling into a posture of polite resignation.
They walk together to the funeral home, crushing an occasional leaf of early demise against the sidewalk. The home is empty when they arrive and he begins the choreography of his work. In the ritual of preparation, the wheeling of Susan’s body to the receiving room, the setting of chairs and arranging of flowers, she finds distraction. Watching, distant, she places herself in a chair and waits.
Mark is the first to arrive, the two boys in their baby suits towed like caught fish. Their little bodies muscled into clothes designed for men makes her want to set them free. She remains isolated as the mourners arrive, with bloated eyes and spotty cheeks, huddling in small groups. When Mark approaches the coffin, his legs stutter before he reaches Susan. Before she knows what she is doing, she is by his side.
She touches his arm and feels not the flexibility, which Susan had described, but an unforgiving severity. Whatever she had meant to say slips away in the depth of his loss. Mark’s eyes on her are lucid; they do not ask who she is, only why.
Then her husband enters, dismissing the air of anticipation with his expertise. Mark stays by the coffin as one by one people speak. She can feel the grief around her, inching onto the carefully chosen carpet, but there is nothing in her but dryness. When the service is complete, Mark pulls the boys away from the coffin and looks directly at her. In his eyes she sees a flash of what he will in time become without his wife. Then he is gone, the mourners trailing out behind him.
In the emptiness of the room she is able again to look at Susan. The body is blanched, unchanged from the night before save the absence of blush. She turns to her husband then, burrowing her eyes into him for an answer. It is only when his hand reaches for the coffin lid that she feels it.
It isn’t in her chest as she craved, but near her naval, fluttering like the wingtips of a moth. Her hand, unconsciously, quickly, follows it to catch the movement.
Her husband does not see, but rather feels the change in her. The sensation to him is as shallow as hers; the underwater instinct a bottom feeder might feel in the immeasurable ocean when day is swept by night. When she takes her hand from her belly and gives it to him, they walk together out to the hall.
Outside, the words seems to enter her body like a cone of chilled air, momentarily rushing her blood before dying.
“All’s fair in love and war, they say.”
The words that run through her are so fertile, so immediate, that she is unaware if they have left her body. But she hears them nonetheless, dropping to the pavement, at mercy, like the fragmented leaves of the fall, to the full weight of her departure.
THE ETIQUETTE OF MOURNING earned an Honorable Mention in the 2008 Competition.
Rachel S. Thomas-Medwid’s fiction has been published in Farmhouse Magazine, In Posse, Literal Latte, and A & U Magazine. Along with receiving the Alice Brandt Deeds Prize for Excellence in Creative Writing, a few of her writing honors include placing in the 2008 The Movie Deal Screenplay Competition, the Writer’s Digest Competition, and the National John Steinbeck Competition.
As news editor of the American Meteorological Society’s monthly magazine, Rachel both edits and writes about the hot topic of global warming. She lives outside of Boston with her husband and three young children, all of whom provide great inspiration for her fiction.
Saturday, March 14, 2009
The pallid Russian man with the limp waits for her. He is always patient. And consistent, too. Whenever she comes, which is weekly, he is there, as if expecting her. But they never speak. . .how could they? And his green eyes avoid hers—she usually fidgets with her purse at the beginning to avoid the awkwardness until the suds come up over the windshield in a magnificent spray and suddenly, she is encased in a wet, velvety cocoon—all alone, all alone. This is when she closes her eyes and breathes deep and listens without concern to the hard spray going back and forth and over and under. If it went on too long she would fall asleep, she is quite sure of it, but it is for only a few moments, like a forbidden glance.
Through the lather and her heavy eyes she barely makes out the little red light turning to green—her favorite part—the bit she most anticipates—the part where she lets off on the brake and allows the track to take her in—she relinquishes control for these minutes and feels the tug and release and slowly the little Russian man with the limp disappears and it becomes Just Her.
When the huge wet slabs of fabric pound across the front of the vehicle, she always worries about the antenna. It is always okay. And her world gets darker and more cocoon-like and she begins to feel the urge welling up inside her yet again and for once she doesn’t have to tamp it back down like rising sludge. For once, she doesn’t have to act like she is well when she is not. Happy, when she is sad. Fulfilled, when she is empty.
That oily smell. That waxy smell. It permeates her nostrils and she cannot help but wonder as she moves slowly along the track toward the soft little droplets of Rainex that will patter across her windshield, how often does the Russian man service the car wash? The mechanics of it look ancient, ruinous even. She fantasizes about the track grinding to a halt half way between the wash and the rinse—stranded alone in the middle of the giant, belching cleaning machine. Would anyone come for her? Her husband? Her children? Her parents? The Russian man with the limp?
Since it is a fantasy, she imagines that they don’t. She imagines that she is left there, sitting by herself. Left to her own self for an unidentifiable amount of time. She has snacks stashed under the seat. A half-empty bottle of water in the drink holder. Some mini M&M’s in the glove compartment. She doesn’t consider that if such a thing happened, she could just get out of the vehicle and walk out. No, she is stranded alone and apparently not a soul knows where she is. And it is thrilling.
This is why she almost misses her cue. The jet engines start up as she edges toward them. One on either side blowing like the dickens. Whirling and groaning and screaming. Oh, but that is her. . .
Mouth stretched into an oval. Eyes scrunched together in effort. Middle-aged face, red with the blood-rush, taut and angry. It could be likened to the howl of an injured animal, one that has drug itself into a sheltered place to die. It is a call to the gods for mercy. It is a pleading to oneself to survive.
She screams because of the endless needing. It’s the kids. Or the dogs. Or her husband. Or the phone. Or the house. Or the yard. Or the piles of laundry that never cease. Or the bellies that must continuously be filled. Or the dishes that need to be washed. Again.
She used to have interests outside of all that. Could speak on current events. Had her haircut every 6-8 weeks. Had hobbies. Had passion. Had something other than Them.
She screams for her lost self. Her lost friends. Her lost energy. She has never felt more alone than now, which is ironic since she is hardly ever by herself. But she knows this, deep down, that lonely feeling, that emptiness—it has nothing to do with the others. The one she misses most is Her. There is a shell of a person looking back at her in the mirror—the one with the dark rings around her eyes and the increasingly deep crevices around the mouth. There is no time. There is not time. There isn’t.
At the end, there is a creaky, steamed garage door that opens always too quickly—almost startlingly- as the jets quiet themselves once more. There is also a little light that turns green to let her know that she can now put her vehicle in drive, yes, take back control. There are a few moments between the jets and the light urging her back out into reality. She sips her water then, as she waits, and checks her face in the rear view mirror in a cursory search for signs of disrepair.
Out comes a shiny van. Sparkling and well-maintained.
Her husband disapproves of her spending so much at the car wash. He thinks it is frivolous. Pointless, too. He says, why clean it if it’s just going to get dirty again?
But she knows otherwise, doesn’t she.
THE STANDARD WASH earned an Honorable Mention in the 2008 Competition.
Heidi Lebauer is a member of SCBWI and the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, MN. She is currently at work on both a stage play for children and a romantic comedy for the screen.
Fiona Byrne is a woman of no significance. Life’s disappointments have won her, in victory claiming the vibrant trophy of her soul and leaving empty the mirrored case that displayed it. Cleverly, she employs those mirrors; dazzled by them and their own reflections, few notice she is an illusion.
Now, all her tricks sufficiently performed for the duration, she sits alone in the corner of a long gray couch in a room overflowing with conversations she cares nothing for. There is no one here she feels affinity to; her grandmother and Aunt Sarah have long been gone.
The crowd shifts and jostles in the small room. Unbalanced, a man slumps to the cushion beside her. Peripherally, she watches a speckled hand rise from the comfort of a tan polyester knee and push the bridge of square glasses to the top of a flat red nose. Becoming aware of her, he swivels the hand mid-flight, a vague wave hello. Misfit dentures smack noisily on a celery stick as he asks her, loudly, slowly:
“Where…. is… your husband… then?”
“I’m not married.”
“You… and… Ricky divorced….,” smack smack, “Hate…. to…. hear it did you… bring… the kids then?”
“I don’t have kids.”
He furrows his brows and submits her to a darting inspection. “Aren’t… you… Sally Ann, Myrtle’s…. girl?”
“I am Fiona Byrne.”
Hearing this, he dismisses her with a grunt and a gesture then rises irate and clumsy from the couch. A glob of peanut butter perches awkwardly on the edge of the emptied cushion, as though unsure whether to stay or follow.
Fiona pops a thumb knuckle, the slow crack the emotional equivalent of a wildly thrown dish. Sally Ann is a mildly retarded, thirty-something cousin. To be mistaken for her is an affront, yes, but like a bee sting; the true injury, like knife stabs, is voicing her failures to anyone, let alone the lush, ill-tempered Uncle Fink.
She has been judged unworthy by the bottom of the barrel.
A ‘glass-half-full’ kind of woman would pare the compliment from the encounter: after all, Fiona had just been mistaken for a woman at least ten years her minor. Fiona, however, has not seen a half-full glass for many years.
Aunt Sicily, scrawny and puckered beneath a fake mound of blue-black hair, shuffles to a stop nearby. In a skirt as tight and red as her wrinkled lips, she raises birdlike arms and squawks out above the noise: “Someone has tracked dirt on the carpet. Please, check your shoes! Please, check your shoes!”
Fiona crosses her short legs at the ankles but does not inspect her shoes. It would be a silly gesture, like a ghost checking its pulse.
Fiona leaves no footprints.
The middle of seven children and the fourth girl before three much-awaited boys, Fiona grew up feeling like an eleventh finger: useful in its own way, but primarily unattractive and not worth touting.
Two relationships in college reinforced those feelings. The first was with Sam, a boy cockier than his looks or intellect would warrant, who after a year of dating (and Fiona’s fifteen-pound weight gain) told her that he was breaking up with her because the relationship had no future; he could never marry a woman with no waist. The second relationship lasted much longer. Who is more like me than me? she would wonder happily in response to Jordan’s claim that he wanted to marry someone ‘just like her’. After five years of being the girl he loved in the mean time, one day Fiona came home to find Jordan packing his bags and aglow in the glory of a woman ‘so wonderful, you’ll love her, she’s just like you!’
In the twenty-five years since, Fiona has not dared risk her heart. She has not dared risk the familiar discomfort of her loneliness for even a moment’s hope of something better. So she lives in a quiet, safe misery that greets her like an abandoned but familiar house after a busy workday.
Fiona does not think often of the times and people who have formed her. But they have not left her. They are heaped in her psyche, where they compost and rot and fertilize weeds of self-doubt, and choke her once lovely self-esteem.
Intuitively, she knows things are amiss. Sometimes she wakes in the earliest morning hours sick with a desperate unrest: life passes while I fail to live! Then sleep comes, and waking, and before she leaves the house she dons a dark cardigan and a mask of indifference, and thus enters protected into the busy-ness that camouflages her barren life.
Fiona’s family is outside, the life of the party. Her brothers Ray, Thane and Willis are the immodest stars of a rowdy football match. She hears their whoops and deep-voiced shouts above the low murmurs in the living room.
She rises and walks to the dining room, where an antique walnut table bears the weight of typical mountain foods: cornbread, cole slaw, ears of corn, potato salad, chicken casserole, green beans, sliced ham, various sweets. Fiona is not hungry, but she takes a paper plate and fills it.
Every morning, Fiona rises from bed and thinks, I wonder if I’ll die today. It does not sadden her to think she might. She can find no useful purpose for her self, no point to her existence. Why endure it? But endure she does, for she realizes each day takes her one step closer to death and whatever it holds, which surely must be better than this empty life.
Someone bumps into her. A roll tumbles to the carpet from the edge of her plate. Fiona squats to retrieve it, thinking, Sicily will have a fit. But then, who in their right mind carpets a dining room?
“Is that you, Fiona? Fiona Byrne?” It is a deep voice, soft, hesitant and hopeful.
Fiona stands, and a wide smile lifts her cheeks and crinkles the corners of two green eyes that sparkle and flash.
Smoke and mirrors.
“Yes, I’m Fiona.” She doesn’t recognize the man, at first. He is tall, several inches over six feet. His sandy brown hair is cut military-style. He has large blue eyes and a strong nose, full lips and a square chin. He is thin beneath khakis and a short-sleeved, blue-striped sport shirt.
He is looking at her with… awe? His face shines with it.
He closes his eyes and covers them with a shaky hand. When he opens them again, they are welling with tears.
“It is you. You don’t recognize me, do you?” He takes a step back, for her better inspection.
Then she remembers and sucks in her breath.
When it is released it carries a name: “Stanley.”
Her right eye twitches: inside her, a mirror has cracked.
His fists pound on the front door. “I know you’re in there, and you’d better run. I’m coming after you, you hear me?” he screams. “I’m coming after you so you better run.”
Inside, she crouches behind a country-blue couch. It is worn and faded and the middle droops like an old swayback mare. It is so different than when it was delivered seven years ago. Then, it had been a shiny beautiful thing, the first new living room suit she’d ever owned. Lord, how proud she’d been. How she’d monitored what went on it: no food, no shoes, no feet, no dirty kids. How many times had she made them sit on the floor instead?
So pointless now.
She puts hands over her ears to muffle the pounding and screaming. The skin on her hands is red and scabby and cracked from too many hours immersed in detergent and water, too many hours cleaning everything in the house over and over again every day: floors, walls, light switches, clothes, bedspreads, shoes, the couch, light bulbs. Yes, even light bulbs. Jeddy will not tolerate a dirty light bulb, so every light bulb in the house gets washed every day.
For ten long, miserable years she has done it. And for ten long, miserable, miserable years she had been beaten on just like that front door, any time she made a mistake, a misstep. If she breathed wrong and it upset whatever illogical sense of balance existed in Jeddy’s mind, she paid for it with bruises to her body, bruises to her dignity.
She can not take it any more.
But she is afraid, so afraid. Why is he here when he should be at work? Can he know her plans?
Ten minutes more and she would have been gone. Moments earlier, she had been in Zed’s bedroom packing the bare necessities plus a few of his favorite toys, hoping the toys would make this just a little bit easier. She saw the boys through the window as she scurried around: Stanley, ten, under the shade of a big maple tree at the edge of the thick woods, wearing his favorite red cowboy hat and wrestling with the chain on his old rusted bike; Zed, six, on the back porch playing with his miniature cars.
They are oblivious to her plans, and that is exactly what she wants. She is not sure how they will react to leaving, and if they rebel against it, she wants it to be after they are in the car and far from here.
The pounding gets louder. As a precaution this morning after Jeddy left for work, she locked the deadbolt. The key to it has been lost for years, so they never use it. Now Jeddy knows something is up because it is locked, and it has turned his normal fury to a black rage.
Suddenly the pounding stops and she sucks in a breath and wonders what he is up to. She thinks about the windows. They are locked, too, but will he break one to get in?
She drops her head into her hands and silently cries out to her mother.
Can you help me? I need you!
They were so poor growing up.
In this southwestern West Virginia hollow that has been her home for twenty-six years, poverty is an ogre that roams the hills and devours any blooms of motivation and hope; he belches out ignorance and addiction; he seeps gloom. In his wake is the rubble of education and opportunity.
These hills are beautiful to gaze upon, but their rich green canvas is stretched over a stench of despair.
And she has breathed it so long.
Growing up, there were eight sisters in two bedrooms sharing four beds and four blankets. Her parents slept on an enclosed back porch that stepped down into a yard of stingy, stubborn clay that refused to yield anything but the paltriest vegetables.
Food was hard-earned. Laughter was scarce. Heat was a sweet dream.
But there was strength and dignity that flowed like a river from their mother and she poured it into them, nearly drowned them with it.
So what if their clothes were made from the discarded flour sacks collected from the local mill? They were clean and pressed to perfection; their stitches were impeccable.
So what if they were made fun of at school?
“You’re Kelly stock,” she’d say. “Hold your head up and be proud.”
“Your great-great grandmother came over on the Mohongo in 1851 and worked like a slave to pay for all her brothers and sisters to come to America and escape the famine,” she’d say. “You’re here today because of a strong woman. Her blood runs in you. Hold your head up and be proud.”
“We’ve always been a poor bunch, and your father is nothing to be proud of, but we work hard and we deserve the dignity we claim,” she’d say. “Hold your head up and be proud.”
They were strong stock poured into a weak stew. Her mother’s iron will made sure none of her daughters ever grew to find the taste acceptable.
She knows she can’t crouch behind the couch forever. She must do something.
Memories of her mother give her strength. She stands to fight, to claim the dignity she deserves, just as Jeddy breaks through the front door. Rage has taken him. She sees the gun.
He tells her he is going to kill her and the boys because they are his or nothing. He takes aim as she turns to run. She hears the shot and feels it plunk into the wall beside her, a thousand pellets of death.
She runs out the back door. She must save the children. She reaches Zed and scoops him up and is halfway across the yard to Stanley when she hears another shot and in the span of a lifetime sees the right half of Zed’s face disappear, feels him go slack in her arms, feels the stings on her back and then the heat, a fire that burns her inside and out. As she stumbles to the soft grass she sees Fiona step from the woods.
Fiona. Sweet, shy Fiona, a diamond born into a family of gravel. Fiona spends more time here than at her own home; Fiona is more my child than anyone’s.
Her dying blue eyes meet Fiona’s wide green ones; Fiona nods slowly, grabs Stanley by the back of the neck just as he takes a step toward his father, and yanks him with her into the trees. They disappear from view and she closes her eyes.
In the woods, Fiona pulls Stanley behind a tree and peaks around to the yard. Aunt Sarah is on the ground dead, she is sure, and Jeddy is running his fat, old body across the yard in their direction. She takes Stanley by the shoulders and whispers, “Lie on the ground behind those bushes and don’t say a word. I’m going to keep running. Once Jeddy follows me, go across to the neighbor’s house and get help. Tell them to call the police.”
Fiona lifts the hat from Stanley’s head and holds it out to her side, shoulder high, then shoves Stanley toward the bushes. “Go!”
She runs through the woods noisily, keeping the hat beside her at a height to mimic Stanley, and is both terrified and triumphant when she hears Jeddy crashing through trees behind her. She hears a shot and feels something small and cold bite into the calf of her left leg. It hurts and scares her; she runs faster, reaching the safety of her own yard and house well ahead of Jeddy. She pushes through the back screen door and turns, watching Jeddy stumble into the yard, bent over and too out of breath to take even a small step.
She catches his gaze and holds up the empty red hat in triumphant taunt: You won’t get him.
Rage flares again on his face, and something else, something she does not know. With a swift move he turns the gun on himself. The blast echoes in the yard long after his body hits the ground.
They stare at one another for long moments. Then Stanley pulls from behind his back a stout, rectangular box dressed in bright pink paper and polka-dot bows.
“My mom didn’t want to die that day. I knew she was planning to take us away, and I could tell she was nervous but…hopeful too. I actually saw her smile at breakfast that morning. I think about it a lot, that smile. And sometimes I ache because she deserved so much that she never had a chance to claim. Yet she had so much dignity and strength, even when things were at their worst with my dad. And I think about my responsibility not to squander this life I’ve been given as a gift, twice, first from her and again from you.”
He wipes away a tear. “Sorry. I know I look like a fool. I wanted to get in touch with you so many times but my grandmother wouldn’t allow it. Then, I guess… I guess time just got away from me.”
He pushes the box toward Fiona. “There’s nothing I can give you that equals what I feel or that comes marginally close to expressing my gratitude to you for saving my life that day. But I think it’s something you’ll like.”
Fiona puts her plate of food on the table and takes the box. It is heavy.
“Open it now, if you will. Please.”
She does, slowly, and once all the shiny things are removed and she sees the gift, its simplicity and brilliance, she is too overcome to speak.
Seeing her emotion, he smiles and nods.
“Good, good.” He takes a deep breath of relief then tries to lighten the mood, teasing, “Hey, you better not let Sicily see you messing up her carpet.”
“It was just a roll, no butter or anything.”
“No, I mean that.” He points to her feet. She looks down and is surprised to see dried dirt clumped around the toes of her shoes.
“I guess you’re the one leaving dirty footprints.”
His words slice through her like a fiery sword, and Fiona cannot lift her head for the shame.
THE REUNION earned an Honorable Mention in the 2008 Competition.
Debbie Browning has been a business and freelance writer for almost 20 years, working primarily in the public relations, financial and pharmaceutical industries. Her dream life, however, is as a fiction writer. In 2004, her first two short stories were published in the local newspaper. Her third short story, The Reunion, is the first entered into competition. She is slowly, painfully, joyfully at work on her first novel.
Wedding day, and I am restless as a cat about to birth. I find no comfort in the raw silk chairs or pale pink chinoiserie of this brides’ room. With the large and unshaded picture windows, I feel more exposed than ever, though there’s nothing but woods outside St. Mary’s. I was not prepared for this day to be so hard.
I am, after all, only a bridesmaid.
The bride flutters through questions that beg for hand-holding more than answers. She hasn’t been able to stay on point all day, but I haven’t been much better. Already I’ve forgotten what Kristina wants to know as I help preen her veil.
I am too acutely aware of her mother, Sharon, standing with honeyed poise before the mirror. She’s adjusting her earring, a peace offering I’d given her. But she fumbles and drops it, and when she bends over, her cleavage presses against the edge of her gown. I stare recklessly, not caring that others might see.
I knew Sharon before I knew the bride. It was the summer after my first year of law school. I’d braved a reading down at Sappho’s Books, but lost the cadence of the poetry as I studied the woman across from me. Her chocolate colored hair silked away from her olive face, her jaw so exquisitely defined. Afterwards, Sharon asked if I wanted to get a cup of coffee. I knew what she was asking. She wasn’t my first.
She was older; I thought she was safer. More assured. Too quickly I fell for her, fell hard, as she challenged my memory of nineteenth century women authors. We long debated which Brontë sister got it right depicting the tragedies of marriage and love. I was the one who asked we stay in, away from the leering from other tables. Oh, our long nights in my tiny apartment, that renovated girls’ school. With my odd hours researching for a professor, I hadn’t thought anything of our erratic dates, did not yet realize all we’d snatched from others.
Kristina’s voice pulls me away from dreams I’ve prayed I’ll keep. I barely comprehend that the bride is repeating herself.
“Yes,” I answer, not knowing what I’ve agreed to, desperate for Sharon’s daughter to depend on me still for solace or advice, as she has for years. But the bride turns away to find someone who will truly listen.
How could I fail her now? Fourteen foot high ceilings and it feels too close, too tight. With sudden urgency, I turn to the nearest window to tug it open. But the window doesn’t budge, no matter how I strain or jerk or push. As if no one has touched it. I press my cheek against the cool of the glass, as if to assure myself of my presence here. On the other side of the painted shut window, sugar maples and lesser broadleaved trees clutch tightly to their foliage, leaves of looted gold.
The others joke that I am more nervous than the bride. As if I could be the one giving my precious away. Sharon does not look over, though. She is buttoning a sequined jacket over her bodice, making herself presentable for pictures and the ceremony. I must pull myself together, too.
Someone else adjusts Kristina’s train as she explains to her flower girl what’s in her bouquet. It is the one thing the groom pays for on this day, she says. “Ivy stands for fidelity, for faithfulness,” the bride says, as if the little girl—or any of us, for that matter—could wrap her mind around that. “And these pretty little white flowers? They’re called steph-an-oh-tis. They stand for happiness in marriage.”
The little girl stands up on the tip of her toes, her white patent leathers so stiff and new. “And these?” she asks.
“Gardenias.” Kristina buries her nose in one. “I just love the smell. I’ve no idea what they stand for.”
I close my eyes, struggling whether to remember or forget the significance of gardenias. My head is spinning. Surely not from last night’s drinks still? I cannot stand here alone any longer.
These past seven years have not been in vain, I tell myself as the photographer clumps us together for pictures before the ceremony. He places me next to the mother of the bride. For once I am glad we are near each other in height. Just before he snaps the picture, I loop my pinky around Sharon’s little finger. Our interlocked fingers are lost in the folds of her gown and hidden behind the bride and groom. When Kristina shows me the proofs I will see her mother’s expression and know how far I’ve fallen since Sharon’s declaration of independence this past summer.
It is so hard, sometimes, this dance of silent denials. Perhaps I am the worst, denying it’s over but for fleeting moments of weakness as I lead the procession of silk sheathed women down the aisle. In Sharon’s world, for those at the end of the Metro North Line, I am the one who helped Kristina get on her feet at college. I concentrate on why I am here. “Because you took me under your wing since the day we met. Like you’d known me and my family for forever already,” Kristina had said at her engagement party. These are the only words I wish to remember from that night. Bile rises in my throat as I wait at the altar for the others to join me.
Sharon’s youngest niece scatters crimson rose petals upon the aisle runner, preparing the way for the bride. The whole congregation rises as Kristina trembles at the door. She begins down the narrow path arm in arm with her father, a man whose eyes remained blank whenever Sharon and I returned from too long a time in the kitchen, from too long a visit in the city. Soon Kristina will stand with her betrothed before us all, and the two will promise to love each other until they die.
Such a fucking lie for most.
Father Pio drones through his prayers, through the homily. Fat with years of accumulated dignity, he bears the weight of sins of those brave enough to confess, not mine. He cannot promise me what he’s promised all others: that if God says the word I shall be healed. I know, I know I cannot be cured of what I am, and the Church has no patience for any of my kind.
I remind myself that even Jesus broke bread at the home of a leper for that Last Supper, though no one remembers the leper anymore. I take of the Eucharist anyway, certain I claim a victory of some kind by making the body of Christ a part of me.
“This is exactly what I’ve been talking about,” my Sharon says as we stand at the bar, her voice devoid of our years together.
I’ve slid my foot against her instep as I ordered a Beefeaters. This way I catch the scent of the perfume I gave her, and I know how she stroked that glistening dauber in the hollow behind her ear. I know how it feels there, there when she softly moans.
She is right, I know. I’ve been crossing that fine line of discretion all day. This is what she meant when she left me, that I didn’t know when to stop. But I’ve pushed her ever since I first caught her in a lie. I was volunteering at the new students’ reception, welcoming a family climbing those steps on Hillhouse Avenue for the first time.
Was that Sharon? Was she married?
It was all I could do to smile warmly at Sharon’s long-limbed husband as I guessed at what warped arrangement they’d come to over the years. I dared not stare but could tell how the fine lines around Sharon’s mouth deepened as I offered to show her daughter around campus, to help however I could. Later, the woman I’d thought was my partner stood by the chafing dishes, finally alone. I wandered over casually.
Evening sun warmed the leaded glass windows above us. With the ceiling so high, the chandeliers so old and their light so diffuse, it seemed we stood in shadow. I almost asked how she thought she could get away with this, but she looked at me, her eyes shining in pain tamped down by the years.
“I was too young when I had Kristina,” she said quietly, without prompting. “We had to get married.”
“You never wore a ring,” is all I said.
“I’m allergic to precious metals,” she said, and I believed her even as I stared at the fine gold strands intertwined below the hollow of her neck.
All these years since, I still take her at her word. Except now, when she reminds me we’ve broken up for good. That, I like to think, is a bald-faced lie.
At the bar, at the wedding reception, her trust fund of a husband greets me from behind with a warm if angular embrace, his cheek again to mine. “Liz,” he says, his blue eyes already watery and martini vague. “You’ve made yourself strange these past several months. I swear you’re giving me a complex. Is it something I’ve done?”
It takes everything I have not to look towards Sharon. “This trial for McEwen, it’s taken a lot out of me. So sorry,” I say, but there’s more for which I could apologize. “Congratulations again.”
“Wonderful, isn’t it?” he says, too easily diverted, that blessing of his perpetual inebriation. “Promise we’ll see more of you?”
Sharon blandly smiles in agreement. I nod without saying a word and lift my drink off the bar, fearful I am shaking so much I will drop it as I thread my way back to the head table.
When the dancing begins, I am left alone, another bitter gin drink before me. I do not glance over at Sharon sitting with her husband. I know without looking how she is sliding the wine stem between her fingers, spread wide into a V shape. I know how she lowers her head to look up at you as she talks, how she drops her voice at the end of her sentences so you have to lean in close to catch everything she says.
But when Sharon quits her table and crosses to the ladies room, I follow. Some god—I don’t know which—has granted me the small blessing of time alone with the mother of the bride. I follow Sharon into a stall, shut the door behind us.
She jumps, her hands covering her chest. “God, you scared me half to death,” she says.
“I’ve been thinking about what you said last night.” Not so much what she said, but what she did.
Sharon pushes me away. “I told you,” she says, her hands shaking. From nervousness of getting caught? “Lay off.”
“Lay off?” I repeat, and the words, strangely obscene, echo across the Italianate tile.
“Please, someone could walk in on us now,” she says, as if repeating a classroom rule for a small child.
“But Memorial Day was just fine for you, wasn’t it?” It’d been during her daughter’s engagement party. The two of us, alone in her flame red kitchen—nothing we hadn’t dared before. And I’d made her shudder in a way I am sure Phillip never could. The drink glass she’d clutched in her hand almost gave us away as it shattered onto the floor.
“You okay in there?” someone had yelled from the patio. Sharon’s eyes fluttered open, and she collected herself enough to say, “Fine, just fine.” I grabbed a broom to sweep away the shards remaining of the glass she’d been readying for Philip.
I was bent at her feet, sweeping debris into a dustpan as she smoothed down her skirt and told me flatly we had to end whatever it was we shared. “God, no,” I said, for I’d never imagined this happening so, with me kneeling before her as melodramatically as the nineteenth century books that had brought us together.
“You want too much of me,” she had said, as if it’d been written long ago. She pulled open the drawer for the garbage and left me in shock as I clinked the broken shards into the trash compacter. I’d had to walk out into the unsuspecting crowd, towards a daughter who still wanted me part of her special day.
Now we stand close in this cramped stall of her county club restroom. All this time, I’ve been so devastated—and I should have been indignant. Waiting as she did until that last stolen shudder in her kitchen, until I was on my knees. “You waited, didn’t you?” I say. “Deliberately waited. You waited to break up until she’d already asked me to be in this wedding.”
My voice is low, a punctured hiss. “What sort of twisted test is this? Did you think I’d be so devastated I couldn’t be here for her today?” I do not shrill, but I can’t stop myself. I move on to questions I do not know the answer to—exactly what my law professors had taught me to never, never do. “What would you do, Sharon, really, if I walked right out of here and told Philip, told your daughter, told everyone what you’ve done? Because I will, you know. Make no doubt about it: I will.”
Sharon bows her head, perhaps ashamed after all of the way she manipulated me. But no, she is hitching up her skirt. “I gotta go,” she says tiredly, and she sits and pees.
I walk out. She knows I don’t like her doing that right in front of me. I do not need to see my image cross the wall mirror to know my dress shifts angrily with each stride. God, how could I make a threat I could never see through?
One of the bridesmaids grabs me on my way back to the table. “The bouquet, it’s time to catch the bouquet,” she says. She sounds so cloyingly eager.
I have no choice but to stand among the simpletons who wait for that one sure sign, convinced that whoever catches a bunch of flowers will enter the next binding relationship. Despite my contempt, or maybe because of it, I wish to hide among this pastel clutch of dresses as Sharon steps back into the room, her face somehow freshened.
God, she is still lovely, so lovely, in the gown I picked out for her.
She’d called for my help not long after that patio evening in May, and I didn’t know what to expect. But I knew the dress was hers the moment I saw it. I rushed back to the dressing room, handed it over the door. Once she slipped it on she let me in. Her skin glowed under the dressing room lights. She agreed with me then, agreed she looked perfect, in a voice soft and pliable.
She’d asked me to unzip her, the zipper too awkward for her to reach. The fabric separated as if she were shedding a skin, all the way to the dimples past the small of her back. There was not much room for me to stand behind her, and I was all too aware that my mouth was close behind the exposed and naked nape of her neck. With much effort, I kept my breaths shallow, so as not to feel the heat of my breath upon her skin. “You’ll want earrings,” I said, ones that dangle against the line of her jaw as she moves through the night. I would not take my eyes off some unnamed stain on the nubbed carpet.
But then, then she was leaning back into me and nestling against me and I did not know where to put my arms, and I could not imagine where to put my hands. “I’ll want more than that,” she said as she pressed her bared back against me. But she laughed lightly, not with the deeper nuances she’d shared other times, in darker places. I found myself standing outside the dressing room as she pulled herself back together, and I did not consider that she might have lost her footing on the small train on the back of her gown. Instead, I held onto that moment—oh that moment—when I believed we’d piece back together what had shattered in her kitchen. I would not have otherwise tried to make it through this evening riddled with excuses and feeble rationalizations, I swear. She took my hand saying good-bye last night, for God’s sake.
For God’s sake.
Kristina’s sorority sisters shriek and in their crush I cannot breathe. I cannot. I move apart from the others, reaching out, straining for the nothingness I believe to be there.
I remember what gardenias stand for, I want to cry out. They mean my lovely, my secret love. If only Sharon could hear me. She smoothes down her rose-colored sheath and sits by her cuckolded husband. My fingers pull the air, as if I could grasp the vision Sharon presents before me, and only too late realize I am holding the fistful of gardenias, the ivy trailing down the sinews of my arm, its touch as deceptively light as spider silk.
DISENGAGEMENT earned an Honorable Mention in the 2008 Competition.
Kate St. Vincent Vogl teaches a variety of courses in Minneapolis at the Loft, the largest and most comprehensive literary center in the nation. She also offers writing, sociology and religion classes through the University of Phoenix. She was graduated from the University of Michigan Law School and cum laude from Cornell. Topics her readings and seminars have addressed include team-building, spirituality, legal writing, and the mother-daughter connection. She is currently shopping her memoir about her birthmother finding her through her mom’s obituary.
It began the summer of my twelfth birthday. I awoke, as I always did, begrudgingly distempered that the sun dared to look at me. My mood was dark you see, liquid black, and the morning light transformed my dream of greatness into just being a kid who needed to clean her room. I was simply little Frannie, daughter of Francine and Michael Stevens, the preacher’s wife and the preacher. On the adolescent food chain, this put me second to last, with only the high school principal’s son, Ernest, trailing me.
I dressed in black denims and a navy tie-dye. I had to maintain my dark side at Webster Middle School; avoiding the goodie-two-shoes label my father’s calling would acquire me. Hell, it was his calling, not mine. I didn’t need to suffer for him any more than he needed to give up chocolate because it turned my face into a demonstration of connect the dots.
My mother didn’t appreciate my views. She bought fluorescent t-shirts that I found spontaneously hanging in the forefront of my closet. Not to hurt her feelings, I wore one whenever we gathered in the driveway to wash the Chevy. It made her happy. I guess that mattered to me back then, though I don’t remember thinking too much about it at the time.
School was a domain of collection, stereotypes abound. There were nerds, prom queens, jocks, yuppies, hippies, hicks, and my group of loners. Prom queens ruled, and if they took a shine to any other group, the entire social ladder of education would shift. At the end of the last day of school, the year of my twelfth birthday, the prom queens took a shine to us loners.
Summer plans changed at a rate of speed undocumented as every queen sort the companionship of a loner for her poolside parties and mall excursions. I found the idea of spending my long awaited summer as a socially acquired manifestation a bit lame. Screw the prom queens, let them sit by the pool with each other, was how I felt about it. That didn’t stop Annabelle Masterson from setting her sights on me, though.
Four foot six inches of blonde hair and hazel eyes gave Annabelle the Barbie look that caused spontaneous whiplash whenever she walked pass the football team. Watching it made me feel ill, but the cafeteria selections were more lethal coming up than going down. Why give her the satisfaction of seeing my annoyance, anyway.
A fellow loner, Mickey Rutgers, a dread-locked, purple wearing, drag queen of a teen, whispered a warning in my ear as Annabelle began her descent on me. Alas, I failed to comprehend quickly enough. Before I knew it, tiny red fingernails attached to bony fingers, bulimic fingers if ever I saw them, had wrapped themselves around my hand. I heard the hideous sound of her high-pitched voice saying my name without the better-than-thou disdain, and it caused me to look at her, really look at her. That’s when it happened. Her all too bright and brilliantly white, my father’s a dentist, smile broke into a flat mark across her face and her eyes welled up in liquid blue. Just my luck, I got the prom queen with feelings.
I tried to pay attention to her self-pitying tirade, but I began debating whether to attend the Saturday matinee at the local cinema that weekend. It wasn’t until the spunky tidbit of boy treat realized that I didn’t care she existed that she grabbed a hold of both of my shoulders and shook me.
“Why aren’t you listening to me, Frannie?” is what I thought I heard as the violent side of my nature exploded. My fist pounded her right in her daddy’s handiwork, splitting her lips against her front teeth. I’d like to say I regretted it immediately, but whom would I be fooling anyway.
The deep red of her blood overshadowed the blonde of her hair, as she stood there with her hands balled into fists determinedly placed on her hips. She let the liquid blue stream down her face as she settled a cold stare directly at me.
“Do you feel better now?” she spat out with contempt, and difficulties, giving that I had split her lips.
Actually, I did feel better, but even I knew better than to say it. My daddy was a preacher! In case you don’t see the relevance, think penance.
“I’m sorry, but you startled me. You really shouldn’t go around putting your hands on people.”
She glared at my audacity to defend my aggression, but something started working in that pea size brain of hers. I thought I saw cogs and wheels beginning to spin as she prepared to speak.
“You’re right. I’m sorry that I grabbed you, but I’m just so desperate and you’re my only hope, Frannie. Please say you’ll help me. If you really are sorry about what you did, I mean.” The conniving little witch backed me up into the politically correct corner of the moment and I began to flail.
“Well, um, yeah, I guess; if I can. What’s wrong, Annabelle?” I said as I began my own prayer that whatever it was would be beyond my control, thus removing my obligation to her deviousness.
She paused, looking around at the kids that had gathered on the corner to watch me pulverize a prom queen. Did I mention that prom queens ruled? Well everyone knows that when you are at the top, everyone else wants to see you fall.
“Not here, Frannie, please. Can’t we just go to my house? It’s kinda private, ya know.”
The question came with sincerity, I thought, which threw me off guard. What could I say? ‘Uh no, I don’t feel like it because I’m the biggest jerk that ever lived’. Uh huh, I was between the proverbial rock and the hard place.
“Okay, Annabelle.” I smiled, giving her credit for the victory. I may have thrown the first punch, but she got the win by decision based on the knock out combination of guilt, fear, and her knowledge of my daddy’s holy retribution.
Nothing could have prepared me for Annabelle’s request as I walked into the courtyard of her parent’s estate, complete with swimming pool and tennis courts. Her parents were out of town, as they often were she confided, and her dog of ten years had died suddenly. Her parents, not being very religious, didn’t have a Bible in the house and little Annabelle Masterson wanted to give Riviera, her poodle, the Last Rites!
“And Consuela, our housekeeper, doesn’t speak English really. I mean she has a couple of phrases, like ‘I’ll tell your Mama’ and ‘such a nice girl’. You must know how it is, Frannie.” Annabelle babbled continually, holding a towel drenched in blood to her face, less I forget that I had punched her.
“Nope.” I looked at her as I answered her honestly, realizing that Annabelle really didn’t understand. It had never crossed her mind that we didn’t have servants. It was at that moment that I changed. I suddenly realized that Annabelle had no idea that most parents didn’t often leave their children in the care of a non-English speaking servant, or any servant for that matter. I felt something, pity, no, compassion. There it was, all my father’s hard work paying off! I felt Christian, and I looked at Annabelle for the first time as a person. The most amazing thing happened in the next second, completely changing my life forever.
“Will you give Riviera her Last Rites, Frannie, please?” the liquid blue dropping from her cheek directly into my heart as she asked me for help melted my barricade of cool indifference. God, help me, it happened. I found a friend. Could someone please tell me, huh, what does a loner do when she finds a friend?
I could recite all the boring details, but to what avail. That summer, I gave my rendition of the Last Rites to Riviera, and six years later, Annabelle and I drove out of town together. College bound, we made a perfect pair, the boy-crazed fashion trendsetter, and the suffering artist determined to discover the meaning of life in the stroke of a paintbrush.
We enjoyed the first few weeks of life at the university with a compromise. Every weekend, I could invite home for dinner a different Adonis, hand chiseled and toned by the Greek gods no doubt, if Annabelle could paint their portraits as only she could in pale silhouettes of light blue and ivory. You see time had taken its wise and all knowing toll on us. I had given to Annabelle a depth of life beyond the football field, and she to me the knowledge of joy simply to enjoy. The only ones surprised by our metamorphosis more than us, were the preacher’s wife and the preacher, who no doubt viewed Annabelle as both my salvation and my downfall. I’d like to say that the Masterson’s were surprised, but in truth, I don’t think they ever really noticed.
I wish I could say that Annabelle had failed to notice her parents’ indifference, but it often haunted her with lingering insecurities and sadness. Whenever her mood turned towards this darkness, I would catch a glimpse of my old self, before I met Annabelle. I imagined the Masterson’s at my mercy as a direct result of retribution by the fist of the preacher’s daughter. I never had enough time to turn that daydream into reality, though, as Annabelle was incapable of remaining dark for very long.
By our second year, we were out of the dorm and living on the edge in the city. School by day, work by afternoon, drinking and dancing until sunset, and finally studying until the sun came up and we started all over again. Weekends, we lay around in our pajamas, ate junk food, and planned our future. Yes, it was a singular future because as of yet, we couldn’t imagine life as individuals.
We were Annie and Frannie, sisters on the verge of everything. We just didn’t realize that being on the verge of everything meant coming to terms with the unpleasant as well. We faced reality the year of graduation, while sitting at home on my front porch, opening the mail to retrieve the diplomas sent by the university for our efforts.
We had come home to attend my father’s graveside funeral a few weeks before graduation, and we stayed because my mother had a breakdown facing my father’s passing. It should only have been one diploma in the mail, but Annabelle was Annabelle. She never left my side, at least not until I tried to force her to return to life because I knew it was wrong to hold her back.
Knowing Annabelle the way I did, I knew it would take more than a punch in the face to turn her away from me. Therefore, I reached into the past for my cloak of liquid black and bitterness, and then I did the unthinkable. I did what ever it took to hurt Annabelle enough to drive her away from me and towards her destiny. She was the best painter our university had ever had the privilege of tutoring, and I had to give her back to the world as the world had giving her to me. After all, I was the preacher’s daughter at heart.
The solemn quiet of that night consumed the house by sundown. I helped my mother to bed and returned to the kitchen to wash the supper dishes. I waited for Annabelle to sit at the table to sketch me as she had done every night since our return. It was the compromise we had arranged upon arriving; she would cook, I would clean, and thus we would all survive.
Annabelle entered with her usual flare, turned a chair towards the sink, and sat with charcoal in hand staring at me. As soon as she had taken the mental measure of the light and distance between us, her hand began to play across her pad in fluid motion. She was as smooth as running water in her movements, as she worked without a thought to what she was doing. She was instinct, and in her domain, she was free to discuss all of life’s little nuances with me as she sketched. I took in the moment, pulling it close to my heart since I reconciled that it was the last that we would share.
Annabelle’s conversation drifted towards the past. I heard descriptions of several old classmates as they appeared to her at the market earlier.
“Mickey Rutgers got married! Can you believe it, just up and moved to Massachusetts with that moose he used to date from Wimbley High? What was his name, oh yeah, Richard.” She giggled and continued.
I kept my back to her so that I could hide my nervousness. Only one of us was aware that this was our last conversation, and I dreaded how I knew it must end. Before I realized how much time had passed or how close her voice was, I felt her hands upon my shoulders turning me from the dishes to face her.
“Why aren’t you listening to me, Frannie?”
These words broke my heart as I realized that they were not just the first words of our friendship but they would also be the last. I knew it was time.
“What do you want from me Annie? My father’s dead, my mom begs to join him and you want to gossip about the locals and expect me to pay homage to your needs. God, I am so tired of coddling your every whim.” I screamed the words in a tone as close as I could get to anger as my heart shattered.
“Frannie, what are you saying?” Annabelle was beyond hurt and confusion, yet she reached for me with her words to try to understand. She wanted to help me. I saw it in her eyes, and I knew that I would have to be more convincing.
“My God, Annie, how long does it have to be all about you, huh? How long can I pity you because your parent’s never knew you existed? I don’t have parents left to share with you anymore. I don’t have the time to worry about you; it’s time you just grew up. My mother needs me now, Annie. For once in your life, try not to be so selfish.”
I screamed these words quickly with my eyes closed so that my tears could not witness the pain that I knew was on her face. The pain I had meant to put there. I closed my eyes so she didn’t see that doing this to her, for her, was killing the part of me that had managed to survive my father’s passing.
Calmness settled over me as I thought I heard my father’s voice telling me to set Annabelle free. I opened my eyes in the wind of change, as I began to regret my actions, and began to think that there must be another way to get Annabelle to return to her life. I expected her to be standing there, bloodied, with her fist balled up and determinedly placed on her hips. I saw the empty room, the sketchpad on the table, and I listened to the sound of the front door creaking closed as she walked away. I expected too much.
Thinking I could not stand another moment, I moved toward the table and sat, less I collapse. With tremble in my hand, I picked up Annabelle’s sketchpad both afraid to see and not to see the truth that always escaped her hands. I stared hard at the picture for several minutes, until the ice inside my soul began to melt and drip from my face upon the page.
As the clear spots of pure emotion stained her masterpiece, I saw my father’s face in charcoal, more life like than the last memory of him that lingered in my mind. I was amazed at how Annabelle always managed to get to the heart of every thought, word, and deed. I saw her words in printed blocks across the bottom and I realized that yet again, she had bested me. For across the bottom of the page she had written me a note.
“I love you too, bonehead. I’ll call from New York, as soon as I sell my first painting. It will be the one I will call ‘FRIEND’, you know, ‘The Preacher’s Daughter’.”
The drips of sorrow became fluid laughter as I realized that she had set me free. She was not sacrificing her life for me. She was allowing me to make a sacrifice for her. She was giving me the gift of giving, and in so doing, giving me another piece of my father to cherish in the character that he instilled in me. She was wisdom, recognizing that moving on into life would be easier for her than coming to terms with returning to the past would be for me.
Once again, the laughter turned to sadness as I realized that in accepting her gift, I would accept the loneliness of living my daily life without her. During the next several days, I framed that sketch of my father and hung it in my mother’s parlor. It remains there, on the wall above my father’s favorite chair even to this day. Though Annabelle’s paintings now reside on the walls of the world’s most famous artistic domains, it is this piece of her work that I treasure most of all. I point to this sketch whenever I tell my daughter about her Aunt Annie and how we became best friends forever the summer of my twelfth birthday.
THE BACKWARD CAROUSEL earned an Honorable Mention in the 2008 Competition.
Nancy A. Silveria, born and raised in New England, aspires to become a published writer. As a graduate of the Community College of Rhode Island, in the study of Clinical Laboratory Science, Nancy works for a leading New England hospital specializing in infant care. The only thing she loves as much as family and friends is the literary realm, and she now creates poetry, articles, and short stories. Her first novel has recently been submitted for competition.
My name is MJ Lennox. I’m sorry that’s not a very compelling way to begin, but WYSIWYG. That stands for “what you see is what you get,” and is pronounced “wizzy-wig.” It’s a computer term we web designer’s use. I’m 27 years old. I’m on a train to God knows where. I have nothing, now.
Al got up in the middle of the night and burned down the house. We didn’t have insurance; everything was lost. Even the car in the garage burned to a crispy metal; it looked like barbecued chicken bones. Al died in the fire.
Smoke inhalation and burns put me in the hospital. That killed my savings, so I became “medically indigent” - what they call it when you get sick and can’t pay the bills. I left as soon as I could, and told the cabbie to take me home. I guess I wasn’t thinking. Everything was burnt, charred. The smell was awful. I saw the little blackened heads of my dolls, Sara with no h, Anne with an e, and Mary, in the heap. Their hair was burned off to a frizz, and their eyes were dulled and cracked from the heat. Jane had gotten lost a long time ago.
I didn’t cry. I don’t cry. Tears are wasteful.
The last time I’d been there, they wheeled me out on a stretcher, an oxygen mask over my face. What I thought was a log on the ground, covered with a tarp, was Al. Even my cat died; with her stiff legs sticking out from her body, she looked like a little gray table. I miss her more than I miss Al. The city charged me for the demo, which cost the same as I got from selling the lot. I was glad not to owe anybody anything. Zero-sum game.
My job’s gone. I was a pixel monkey, that means doing the website, at Janenda Dented Can Groceries. Tomatoes one week, then it’d be green beans, and fruit salad the next. After the fire, they took up a collection and Mr. Janenda himself came to the hospital, and gave me the envelope with $329.50 in it. His shoulders were slumped in his old brown suit when he told me he couldn’t keep my job open, and he kept tapping a big liver spot on his cheek, like it was a talisman or something. He’d decided not to do the website anymore, because most of our customers don’t have computers. He was very nice about it, really. I was an independent contractor, with no health plan, no disability, no vacation, no unemployment - nothing. He said, “Good-bye, dear, and thank you for everything” before he shuffled out of the room.
So, my home, my job, my car, my cat, all my clothes - everything I owned, was gone. Is gone. I’ve tried to get another job, but no one is hiring. Plus my hands got burned. Not down to the bone, nothing gross like that, but bad enough so that I can’t type or even sort cans, now. I hide them. They’re pink and shiny, whereas the rest of me is white and pasty.
OK, end the pity party. So what, that I don’t have any friends or family, except for Uncle Archie. It’s the same as it’s always been - WYSIWYG. I was a clumsy, tongue-tied child. My parents had me in the blithe and stupid way they did everything, and I was an only child, a lonely child.
Ronnie and Ron (really Veronica and Ronald) were hippies, who’d decided they were too selfish to ever have a child. Well, they were, and they did. My mom was in her twenties, and she started to get fat. One of the caravaners, a midwife, told my mom she looked pregnant. By then, my mom was about five months along; she hadn’t even realized her periods had stopped. The Ronnies thought it was a hoot. The first and only time she saw a doctor, at the free medical tent, Ronnie was seven months along, and was having some spotting. The doctor told her to get off the road, but she didn’t. She just sat with her legs up at the concerts, instead of spinning and twirling around to the music. I can always picture her so clearly, arms out, head thrown back so her neck was bared, hair and skirts whipping around, a solitary carousel.
Ronnie went into labor at a Dead show. She didn’t want to miss the music, so I was born in the back of the old aqua and white VW camper van. Fortunately, their midwife friend was there, so it was all OK, no complications. I was a scrawny thing, just over 5 pounds, and a little bit jaundiced. They decided it was so marginal that I didn’t need the Billy Rubin lights (whoever he was) that babies are stuck under at the hospital. Ronnie didn’t want her newborn baby to be “in captivity,” which is what she called the hospital. I was skinny and yellow in my earliest photos, like a curried prawn with little arms and legs.
My mom was beautiful; I must’ve been a shock and a disappointment. She was so pretty that she’d be pulled onstage to dance with the lead singer; she was the one photographed for newspapers and magazines, the poster girl for the counter-culture. I never appeared in the pictures; she always handed me off like a sack of groceries to some stranger while she purred and glowed for the cameras. In the few snapshots that I’m in, Ronnie and Ron are both gorgeous, lugging around this little lump of a baby. They both had thick hair down their backs; Ronnie could sit on hers. It was like a field of wheat, ashy golden, and my dad’s was the rich reddish brown of a cup of Lipton’s tea. Mine turned out thin and flat, the color of scuffed brown linoleum on old floors. Her eyes were brown, his blue. You’d think if things were fair, I’d at least have ended up with one good feature, like green eyes. Wrong. I got hazel.
There’s not a single picture in which either of them is looking at me.
They strung a little hammock in the VW for me, and took me on the road. The van would go so slow up a hill that there was always a trail of irate drivers behind us, laying on their horns. It made this little “put-put, chug-chug” sound; like The Little Engine that Could, except a lot of times it couldn’t. We’d pull over to the side of the road.
I didn’t interfere much with their fun; they careened through life, barely making ends meet, because if they’d had real jobs, they’d be buying into the system. They were Deadheads, following the band. My dad made pewter pendants and beads, stuff like marijuana leaves and skulls, and my mom strung them together. I was dragged along, until I had a seizure. The doctor found high lead levels in my blood, from the pewter. He reported it to the state, and they investigated. I was six years old. It was a big deal, because the law is that kids have to go to school. The hospital they took me to wouldn’t release me, and child protective services came in. They told the Ronnies to settle down, put me in school, and give up the pewter.
They didn’t. They left me in the hospital, pinning a note on my johnny with her parents’ phone number and address. I was asleep; they never said good-bye. My Grandma Ellen flew to California to get the grandchild she didn’t even know existed. After being abandoned in a hospital, suddenly I’m in Michigan, which Ronnie had vowed never to step foot in again. I never saw her and my dad after that.
My grandparents were in their 60’s when I was foisted upon them. But what could they do? They had too much pride to allow me to go into foster care. They kept telling people it was temporary. I guess they were ashamed that their daughter, a cheerleader and the homecoming queen, had ditched her kid.
The Ronnies died in a crash when I was ten. High on something, they missed a turn on Highway 1, driving down the coast from Mendocino. The old VW was full of marijuana, which they sold at concerts along with their jewelry. I was an orphan. It didn’t really matter to me, though, because I’d felt like one since the day I was discarded at the hospital.
I loved to read, and my favorite characters were little girls who’d been orphaned. What a cliché I was, reading about Jane Eyre, Anne of Green Gables and Sara Crewe under the covers at night. The weird thing was that Mary Lennox, the girl in The Secret Garden, had almost the same name as me. My name is MaryJane Lennox; I was named for marijuana. There were a lot of girl orphans; I didn’t much care about the boy ones.
My grandparents were shocked when their daughter died. They always hoped she’d see the light, and return and get me. They were really and truly stuck, then. Grandma Ellen often sighed so deeply I could see her toes move through her sensible shoes. I can picture them perfectly if I close my eyes, with their rubber crepe soles. They were kind of grey beige, with brown laces, and they had this little ridge around the outside. They always smelled bad, and were bumpy from her toes.
They vowed to do it differently, to mold me into the solid citizen they’d failed to do with my mother. So, I had no life, just lots of church. No overnights or playdates, but I was a friendless kid, so even if they’d allowed it, I didn’t have anyone to do these things with.
Ellen didn’t even tell me about periods, so I didn’t know what to think when I started bleeding down there. She hadn’t let me go to the sex ed lectures at school, so I was clueless. My Uncle Archie told me. (Yes, they’d named their kids Archie and Veronica…kind of pathetic, if you ask me.) Archie found me sitting on a log, crying, on one of his rare visits to see his parents, and he asked me why. When I told him I was dying, he started to chuckle. His freckled face got red, and he slapped his hand high on his forehead, right where his sandy hair was already receding, as if he was swatting a mosquito. It was mean, his laughing, but it was reassuring. He went in and told his mother, who dashed out in a mortified dither, wringing her hands. I suppose she believed that if I didn’t know about puberty, it wouldn’t happen.
I was a teenager when Ellen died of breast cancer. Archie didn’t come for the funeral. By that time, he was working in Singapore, and didn’t want to make the long trek home. He hadn’t seen his parents in years.
After Ellen died, I dropped out of the choir, which she’d forced me to join, and we stopped going to church. The pastor came by a few times, but he was easy to blow off. Slowly, after the requisite casseroles, we disappeared off the radar of the people who’d known us. Then Al started forgetting things. First I thought it was grief about Ellen, then I realized he was demented, so I spent my high school years keeping it a secret, because I didn’t want to go into foster care. I tried to contact Uncle Archie, but he’d moved on to another job, and I didn’t know how to reach him. It actually was about two years before I had an address for him, and by then I had it all figured out.
I started inspecting dented cans at Janenda’s when I was 16, after school. A truckload would come in, and I’d have to examine each one, to make sure it wouldn’t kill anybody. I had the “Classification of Visible Can Defects Poster" memorized. I needed money to pay for gas. I’d use Al’s car, we had social security from Ellen, and his pension check. I was good at forging his signature, so there was enough for food and property taxes and stuff. The mortgage had been paid off years before. I didn’t know about homeowner’s insurance then. I just paid the bills that came in.
After Al did some things, I got scared he wasn’t safe, so I’d tether him on a retractable dog leash when I went to school, with food, the TV remote, and a bucket to pee in. It sounds cruel, I know, but it allowed him to stay home, and kept me out of the system. Over time, I had to shorten the leash, because he’d try to cook, and forget to turn off the flame, that kind of stuff. By the end, Al didn’t know me at all, and I had to spoon feed and diaper him, which was disgusting.
I graduated from high school with a C average, and then I went to the community college at night to learn computer skills. I still worked at Janenda’s. When I was 22, and had my AA degree in computer science, they let me start the store website.
The night of the fire was a normal, regular night. I fed Al, and put him to bed. I guess what probably happened was he had worked the leash over the end of the dresser, or something hard. It must’ve taken him years to worry it down so far. When I was in high school, every year I’d get a new leash, a different color, as a present to him. Over time, I just spaced it out. Anyway, I put him to bed, and went to sleep myself. When I woke up, there were flames and smoke. I called 911 and then raced to Al. He was on fire. His pajama shirt had melted and was sticking to his bony chest. I‘ll never forget his scream. It was hideous, beyond anything I ever saw in a horror movie or even on the news. It pierces me still, his look of terror and excruciating pain, and me watching as the sizzling blue polyester ate away at his skin. I quickly grabbed him and rolled with him on the floor. That’s how my hands got burned, and my hair singed off. I look better with eyebrows and eyelashes, but the burn nurses told me they’d grow back. I was really lucky not to have my face burned off.
So, I was on the floor, with Al, when a big fireman picked me up and slung me over his shoulder and brought me outside. They came in time for me, but too late for Al.
I was coughing and choking, and probably wailing like a baby, but that’s to be expected, as the house burned down. I already told you about Al and Mimi, my cat. I didn’t tell you about the smell, though. Burnt flesh smells horrible; that’s another thing I won’t ever forget.
The fire inspectors told me that Al had started the fire, trying to cook. And you know the rest, about Janenda’s, and the demolition. I forgot to tell you that Al had a burial benefit, so I put him next to Ellen. It was kind of a waste, because he was already pretty cremated, but I know Ellen would of wanted it that way.
After I got out of the hospital, the Red Cross gave me a bag of toiletries and a hotel room for a few days while I took care of the demolition and burying Al, and a cream-colored teddy bear with shiny black eyes. I put it between my head and the window when I want to sleep. It muffles the sound of the tracks; it’s soft against my cheek.
I needed clothes, so I got this coat. I thought the brown, tan and red plaid looked vintage, but now it just seems old and sad; the pattern’s barely visible in the back, and the Lucy collar curls up. One of the large plastic buttons is dangling, but I can’t sew right now, with my hands the way they are. The coat reminded me of Ellen, and how she would laugh her wheezy snort at “I Love Lucy.” It’s not my style, nor is this aqua and black Pendleton shirt. My suitcase is red and black tartan, with a zipper. Plaid was 50% off at the Goodwill the day I went shopping.
Uncle Archie called me when I was in the hospital. He said he had a “Google Alert” for his dad. What that is, if you want to track if someone’s in the news, you put in their name, and if the search engines find them, you get an email. So when the news reported that Al Craven, age 83, died in a fire, Archie got a hold of me. He said he was sorry, but he couldn’t come back, and there wasn’t much reason to, because his dad was dead, and there was nothing in the house to box up or sell or anything. So he told me to come stay at his place in Northern California, way out on the coast, even though he still lives in Asia, somewhere.
But then the doctor said I couldn’t fly yet, because my lungs were still healing from the smoke. There wasn’t enough left of the $329.50 for airfare, anyway, so that’s why I’m on this train, off to start my new life, I guess. There’s a lot to see looking out the window. People still hang up their laundry some places, and it dances and flaps in the wind.
WIZZY-WIG earned an Honorable Mention in the 2008 Competition.
Kate Amatruda, MFT, CST-T, BCETS, EMT, DMAT, DSHR-DMH has written chapters and journal articles on trauma and disaster mental health. When she's not responding to disasters, seeing clients, or doing math homework with her son, Kate is scrying for an agent for her novel, a salsa version of Pride and Prejudice with a gender twist.