About the Author, Cécile Barlier: I was born in France and received my master’s degree from the Sorbonne University in Paris. For over two decades, I have lived in the United States, where I am raising my family and working as an entrepreneur. In addition to my time in France and the United States, I have traveled extensively and lived in Mexico, Spain, and England. I have been a regular student and occasional teacher at the Writer’s Studio in San Francisco for a number of years.
It was all she could do, wait.
What else was there, after all?
Twelve minutes in the lunch line at the grocery store, thirty-seven at the DMV, exactly eighteen at the pizza place on a Friday before he got home (and she had to give them credit; not once had they breached the twenty-minute guarantee that would’ve made the pizza free).
But this was Tuesday morning, and Tuesday was her cleaning day. Monday nights meant poor sleep, which meant she was up ungodly early. Not that she ever truly went to sleep. They would go to bed together, but slept apart. He’d curl up with his back to her, snoring quickly and easily while she laid on her back and stared up at the ceiling, her mind racing at the morning’s possibility, anxious to get cleaning right then and there (if only he had been a heavy sleeper).
She struggled all night with herself, fighting the urge to get up and pace the anxiety away, wear herself out so she could fall into easy slumber the way he did. Her body thrummed; she had to force her body to remain still in the midnight, nearly forgetting to breathe in the process. This was her Monday night, alone and awake in the dark for hours. Fidgeting in silence. Fighting to keep her composure as he took his time waking, arriving into the sunlit world slowly.
She would get out of bed before him under the guise of needing breakfast, but finally (finally!) she had something to do to murder a little time before she could really begin her day.
He would wake as she padded across the bedroom floor and opened the bedroom door, hallway light spilling in and across his weary face. He’d yawn and clear his throat, a sound that ripped the house apart several times before he chose his outfit for the day, showered, dressed, and kissed her on his way out the door.
But today? He’d ‘felt peckish. Some toast, maybe. An egg.’
And while she toasted the bread and heated up the egg – a little extra salt, maybe; if he finished, great, but if he didn’t, even better – her insides drew taut, the thinnest of rubber bands stretched to their outermost limits, ready to snap. It was like the way foreplay built up between future lovers; slow. Agonizing. Delicious.
The egg sizzled. The heat of the toaster filled the small kitchen as she leaned across the kitchen island and stared, nearly salivating.
Not at him, no. And not at the smell of breakfast, though you’d be forgiven for thinking so; at the counters and the ledges and the bookcases beyond in the living room. At the thin film of dust that coated the lives they barely touched.
She could feel her body tense up further, electrify. Her skin tingled from the inside out, her blood simmered beneath the surface, flushing her skin from calf to cranium. Amazing that he never saw this, or if he did, that he never said anything, never made a move to take advantage of the moment the way he used to.
Perhaps that was a proper allegory.
The toaster dinged, the egg continued to sizzle. She plated the toast, buttered it, placed it on the island between them. Soon after, the egg followed in the same silence.
While he ate, she stood.
When he was done eating, he slid the dishes back across the island, came around to her side, kissed her cheek, and left through the garage without a word of thanks.
This was the worst waiting, the ten minutes after his car pulled out of the driveway and sped off to his cubicle farm on the other side of the city. She couldn’t stand the agony of waiting 15 minutes, but 10 minutes was half his normal drive time, so he’d return in that time if needed. She’d almost been caught early on when she had less patience (less than five minutes) and he’d returned home because he’d forgotten his work badge.
She had fallen to her knees and opened her mouth right as the garage door opened. He rushed into the house, mumbled an apology, grabbed his security badge off the counter, and left again. Had he seen her there by the living room bookshelves and wondered what she was doing? If so, he never brought it up. Perhaps he had been too in his own head to notice. Perhaps he had noticed, but never thought twice about it, knowing that the house gleamed and sparkled when he returned home every Tuesday night.
Three minutes passed. Over the next seven she would climb up the staircase to their bedroom, change into her cleaning clothes (old medical scrubs), and return to the living room. So many surfaces to clean, so many areas in need of her touch before his work day ended. She relished the challenge.
One might wonder what had elicited this kind of behavior in Elle, if they ever saw her engaged in it. But no one ever had, at least not that she knew. She kept the blinds drawn and the shades shut on Tuesdays so that her cleaning day was all hers, a thing for only her to enjoy without the interruption of a wandering salesman or proselytizer (both of whom appeared often on her doorstep despite the sticker on the storm door unkindly begging both of them off).
From bedtime to cleaning time, the feeling that grew inside her was like the simmering of a volcano moments away from erupting, a shaking of her earth with tremors that lasted well into the evening after she was done.
Was this what it was like for songwriters? Poets? Artists of any shape or size or medium? She had to assume it was. This feeling of something bigger than her was overpowering and intoxicating, like wearing a costume that fundamentally changed her personality into something absolutely no one would recognize or fully understand. This made her feel powerful in a strange way. That she had not blocked out more than one cleaning day a week was a testament to three truths:
One. She wanted to keep it special, holy. Like church on Sunday for those that believed.
Two. She secretly loved the anticipation, the waiting.
Three. She didn’t want to get caught. Despite the power she felt it gave her, she also understood that deep shame could be the result from witnesses that wouldn’t understand and multiple cleaning days a week would up the chances of that happening.
Elle could remember the precise moment that stirred up her inner workings. She could remember how she was relenting and bored in one moment and then completely energized, thrilled, the next.
Their lovemaking had declined, both in quality and frequency, four months into living in the new house. To be clear, there was no love lost between them; it still held firm and in place as near as she could tell. They were both just…exhausted. The planning of the wedding, the wedding itself, the honeymoon, and then moving into the new house all in the span of half a year? Who wouldn’t be exhausted?
It took them a few weeks to fully unpack and decorate the house. Sure, there were a few boxes of things left, but they were the unimportant things that hadn’t had their own place in the apartment either, so…into the closets they went. Art was hung, books were placed, the entertainment center provided their nightly relaxation on the living room couch. Soon her sexual appetites reawakened.
His did not.
While on the couch she would nuzzle a little closer. She would playfully bite his arm as they lay intertwined in each other. She would place a hand on his stomach or on his thigh, rub the fabric slowly, hoping to get a rise out of him.
She would slide her hand beneath his shirt, tousle his chest hair, lightly pinch a nipple. To each and all of these, he was unresponsive at best and temperamental at worst, sometimes expressing his annoyance at her disturbing his relaxation. All she wanted to do was have him naked beneath her in every room sooner than later.
But she stopped her advances and kept her physical distance, believing that maybe if he soon realized that he forgot what she felt like, what she tasted like, that he’d start to want to remember on his own and surprise her. And one day for whatever reason, he finally had.
She’d just started preparing a dinner of lamb and garlic potatoes when she heard the garage door open behind her. He never told her and she never asked, but she wondered what it was that had put him in such a mood when he stepped through the door. Was it her outfit? The way she was standing? Did her skin seem to have a particular glow that made him salivate and desperately need her in that moment?
He said nothing as he entered. Soon, his hands were on her waist, his body pressed tight up against her backside and his mouth exploring her neck as if it were an undiscovered paradise. Her left hand slid down, covered his on her waist, while the right moved up to reach behind his head, fingers grabbing him by the hair and pulling him deeper into her neck.
His pants were soon around his ankles, the belt clinking dully on the hardwood floor. Her skirt had been hiked up, her hands clamped on the counter’s edge as he pressed her face down flat on the countertop. This was new for him, a dominance thing he never would’ve tried before, him making her submit, but here they were, both caught up in something guttural and necessary, wordless save for the phrases that came in the moments where pain and pleasure met briefly, explosively, dissipated into sweat and motion.
In her field of vision sat the microwave, specifically the digital clock in bright green numbers. During, she caught sight of the numbers over and over again, weirdly burning themselves into her brain. For exactly fourteen minutes, the lovemaking was not good. Wild, unfocused, and primal but in a clumsy, virginal way, not the unbridled passion kind of way where every movement, every touch, is perfect and lasting and reflected upon decades later in one’s twilight.
But he was trying and that was good.
Her breathing took on a regular in and out, matching his motion. It came out hard and heavy, moving the small clumps of dust hidden deep beneath the microwave, scattering them around and out into the light in little spinning eddies of gray before her.
Understand that, in this moment, she was not disgusted like most might be. She was enthralled, entranced even, by their movements. Her mind didn’t automatically switch to “I need to clean that when we’re done,” it moved beyond thought. She watched the dust dance on wind that she created and could think of nothing else, a blank mind simply processing a weird ballet play out before it.
The dust is moving because of my breath.
My breath is moving because my husband is having sex with me.
I’m having sex.
And that quick, Elle was out of and then back in to the moment with her husband, breathing hard along the surface of the countertop. The bits of dust eddied closer, nearly teased her lips before eddying back out. A hard exhale and they were back, clinging to her moist lips, melding with the saliva spread across them. Without thinking, she slid her tongue out, captured the dust on its tip, brought it between her lips and tasted.
Her husband would believe right then (and forever after) that he himself had unlocked her sex, had found the key to get her to that point every man believes he’s done with every woman before. She would never correct him.
The dust dissipated like cotton candy inside her mouth. In that moment, her taste buds reawakened, exploded open. This new texture, this new taste, that filled her mouth was unflinchingly raw and fueled something inside her she was unable to name or process. What didn’t melt on her tongue found its way down her throat and the sound that erupted from her, a rocket screaming to get out, was unlike anything she’d ever uttered in life before or any time after.
So he could be forgiven for thinking his lust, his touch, had caused the kitchen to be filled with the sound of her guttural, wordless pleasure.
And she would allow it.
When he finished, she remained splayed out on the countertop, breathing hard and heavy, in and out, trying to suck in more of the dust she could see sitting and waiting there in the dark; she pretended to be winded. She pretended her body was still shivering from the inside out, hoping to coax more of that life-altering substance down her throat.
Days later, Elle would stumble across an article in the doctor’s office about respiratory illnesses. In this article she learned several things:
Dust is not primarily made of human skin flaking off as it dies; it’s composed of pollen, hair, textile fibers, paper fibers, soil minerals, cosmic dust particles, and various other materials found in the local environment.
She preferred to believe it was mostly dead skin, thinking it strangely romantic that she could consume both his and her dead selves into her living one in the hopes that maybe she could bring back their former selves to something recognizable and normal, to something less fraught with friction and solitude spent with someone else.
Nearly 40 pounds of dust accumulate in the average home during the course of the year.
That was 40 pounds of silence between them, 40 pounds of unspoken conversations, 40 pounds of old memory scattered to the wind; that seemed like a waste.
Micrometeorites spread close to 40,000 tons of cosmic dust across the earth each year.
She became titillated by the idea that she had consumed star dust and imagined that she now had something like a denser, more complex connection to the universe because of that fact.
Dust absorbs colors like blue and green in the atmosphere, but allows for oranges and reds to pass right through it. In this way, dust is responsible for the vivid natures of sunrise and sunset.
She found this both fascinating and intoxicating, imagining a sun being born inside her, filling her with a warmth and a light that had both previously gone cold and dark.
Because she had worried about the consumption of the dust amidst the tryst in the kitchen, she had scheduled this appointment to clear up any fears that may have grown inside her about possible health issues that may arise. After reading the article, she got up and left the waiting room, not bothering to cancel her appointment, smiling as she stepped out into the sunlit afternoon.
She may or may not have opened her mouth (like a child in a rainstorm) in the hopes of catching some small bit of that cosmic dust falling from the atmosphere.
Ten minutes. She’d waited the full, glorious ten and fell to her knees by the living room bookshelf. She inhaled and exhaled three times, bent over, and began licking the surface of the bottom shelf, running her tongue along every dusty inch not covered in books or DVDs. It would take her an hour to finish the living room; the book shelf, two end tables, the coffee table. Kitchen next, followed by the dining room, and then up the stairs to the bathrooms and master bedroom to finish. She could be done by 2pm if she hurried, 3 if she took her time.
She hoped there’d be fewer splinters than last week.
About the Author: Adam “Bucho” Rodenberger is a surrealist writer from Kansas City. He earned dual bachelor’s degrees in English and Philosophy from the University of Kansas City-Missouri in 2009 while minoring in Political Science. He earned his MFA in Writing from the University of San Francisco in 2011 and continues to work on short stories and novels-in-progress. He released his first short story collection, “Scaring the Stars into Submission,” in 2016 and is set to release his second collection, "The Machinery of the Heart: Love Stories" in early 2019.
He has been published in Agua Magazine, Alors, Et Tois?, Aphelion, Bluestem Magazine, BrainBox Magazine, Cause & Effect Magazine, Cahoodaloodaling, Crack the Spine, Eunoia Review, Five Quarterly Magazine, Ginosko Literary Journal, Glint Literary Journal, The Gloom Cupboard, Hamilton Stone Review, The Heartland Review, L’allures des Mots, Lunch Box, Marathon Literary Review, Meat For Tea: The Valley Review, New Dead Families, Offbeatpulp, Penduline Press, Phoebe, Poydras Review, The Santa Clara Review, Serving House Journal, Sheepshead Review, Slice Magazine, Summerset Review, Up The Staircase, Fox Spirit's "Girl at the End of the World: Book 1" anthology, and was included in the “Broken Worlds” anthology published by Almond Press.
He blogs at: http://triphoprisy.blogspot.com.
As far as she could see anywhere in the room, no one was keeping watch. Expecting to find someone, she saw only herself. At one end of the entrance, distant, light was projecting her off-red hair into gray in the end huge wall mirror. Its silver alloy cracked into a fine mesh, so her flesh was a ghost.
Or was it an alabaster bust in the attic or plaster head of a composer won as an award in a piano playing contest? She rotated her own to see which and flicked her eyes to see neither of these. Instead, she was awake, after all the long trip home.
On this giant mirror screen, she could see who was in back of her. Who shot pool? Who pressed their hands to their heads during board games, when the vast room contained restless groups with a constant z-z-z? Seeing or hearing no one, she landed in a booth. Her fingers traced unknown names scratched into the table, stick forms, and one “Kilroy was here.”
Some called this vast room a refuge, a bunker. Not wanting to be surprised while seated, she stood up. The living would soon arrive.
* * *
A year ago, wary of this spot, she’d hunted at dusk for the door into the building. Looking for insiders, one in particular, here was the door but not the man.
The right door was one lined up in a series of false front buildings near the city’s main square. The storefront, like so many headstones one of which tipped, waiting for the past to thrust into the future. The door one gave way.
Once an ice cream parlor for great-grands, this semi-underground now revisited with its fogged windows, had allowed passersby to gaze in until closed.
Her mother’s best friend had sung earlier on in this speakeasy, called the Cave for cavern. Later landlords used its expanse for a storeroom, until the break-in.
Into its lower reaches, youths forced in against the metal plate that covered the opening into a rundown restaurant, closed for the night on a particular night twenty or thirty years ago and only now reopened.
On into the dumbwaiter, others followed, swinging down below. This original core called their hideout the Cell for cellar. “We’ll make us our own hangout,” said Joey.
“Yeah! No drug sellers.” Louie mocked short Joey.
* * *
The community hullabaloo ballyhooed this gang hangout. The building’s latest owner said, “No place to go. So, they stay.”
Later though, Pete said, “He’s losing interest, as some of the town’s dailies and weeklies wrote that this drop-in for dropouts and some grown-up volunteers was drawing ‘riffraff and rejects with ducktails, and hellers dishonorably discharged.’” Something must be done for this trouble in Riverton.
If anyone asked Michaela, nicknamed Micki, “Why go down to that hideaway?” she would have skittered away. It drew her into its whiffs of Prohibition, the twenties with speakeasies that dazzled and the thirties that dimmed the experiment. What mattered?
For Pete, the youth worker now semi-in-charge, tall and loose-limbed told her, “Keep an eye on the females, cut out the clinical people.” Once in sight, the Cell types were bouncing, pinching, punching, and other actions unknown to the sippers, stool sitters and hoppers of another era.
The patient load getting used to the medical center differed from these here on the Cell’s floor. Steadying herself, she was unsure how to deal with these kids or grown-ups or those in between.
Because of soles with cleats, their steps clicked on the stairs, fists pounded the stairwell and sounded like a drumming dance warming up. She jumped. Down bowling alleys, they were shooting scratched bowls at helter-skelter pins on alleys.
On the sidelines, some with eyes sunken into their heads watched, until one put a coin into the jukebox. On flashed red, green, and blue into the low-lit atmosphere. The music of Gladys Knight and the Pips rollicked out.
* * *
Instead of Pete, the one she was looking for, another older man sauntered in through the dancers on the floor, while a child, Annie, giggled behind him. Then the little one stayed to bob dance in time with the others. “Don’t leave,” he told her, as he pushed on toward the bar counter. He leaned on it. His fingers began tapping to the musical sounds on the marble, its graphite veins almost wobbled in time to the off-white staticky music, scratchy from jukebox. Distracted, his head fanned to lock into points across the span of the room to study each youth. After rotating for minutes, he said, “Girls hardly touch boys these days, do they? No cheek to cheek in this wartime. Just touch and go.”
* * *
Micki glanced up at him. He removed his windbreaker that matched his chinos, pressed. With his kerchief, he wiped the damp from his temples. A musical staff crossed his frown lines beneath his white hair, swept to one side. Sadness that crouched between his eyes dropped away from time to time. Mostly, it stayed during the loud music.
Years earlier, in the nightspot where they stood-in, he said, “I performed here and in clubs all over town and country.” Still scanning the Cell for someone, he revolved at times, pausing toward her at a diagonal. This man walked away from the bar, only to come back and reminisce, until the loud music stopped him.
“After the Upper Peninsula Conservatory and Study with a master from the North, I landed my first job.” Trumpeters heard him in his school combo before Lent. “They’d come to talk me, while my pop was fixing the roof over our head, into joining their show.”
Pop resisted. “No.”
Mom relented. “Let him go with the circus.”
Eventually, he arrived at Danceland on the edge of Chicago, where he played most weeknights. Dancers never seen before impressed him.
“What they did at the beginning of the Second World War was before anyone else in the know knew the way. We tuned up for all the gals out there, kicking off their shoes and performing in their stocking’d feet long before the fellows came in. They hadn’t paired off yet. You’d never seen such grateful people in your life for our music. Away they’d go!”
Hank had moved on, he let Michaela know. She’d been the neighbor he’d known by sight and the neighbor she heard by his jazz music.
The dancers lay within him forever. Moreover, besides the violin, he had taught himself the saxophone. So, the leader of a new show band asked him to join up, playing two instruments for the pay of one.
Between the discs on the red, green, blue, and red jukebox turnstile, he must have dreamed aloud this all back to her. “When the outside grew cold,” he continued, “the band moved farther south, and we turned inside while touring from place to place. Luckily though,” he said, “we did not zigzag every day, breaking the jumps.”
“What was that?” she asked.
In time, Hank had teamed up with another bandleader, whose brother played with Paul Whiteman, though Hank said he’d been aiming for that band or another big one, when deciding the Whiteman band was too sentimental.
By his late teens, he was recalling and enthusing with Micki. Of the youthful dances catching on in his hometown and hers, the one band gave Bunny Berigan his start at the Hollywood Gate. In its first “dime a dance,” Berigan dumbfounded the dancers with his special, “I Can’t Get Started.”
“He stopped the show.”
“He did. Who else could?” Later, the younger bandsmen parted into several small bands. She listened. He’d spent the following season at the River City Garden. In a big show band they performed—the players that is—for an hour at least twice a night, lasting until late in the morning. Onstage every so often, stars from comedy to opera also appeared, Hank said, “Names you never heard of.”
“I might have.”
Sometimes two or three bands were booked-in at the same place. After the evening finished, some of the players would turn on their portable Victrola for others coming back from the ballrooms and clubs. They would sit around listening to thousands of “Louis records” by the hour.
“Armstrong was jazz,” Hank said. “His New Orleans was all jazz. Chicago was jazz.”
“Some jazzmen arrange their music like a symphony. The ’go-men improvise. Sidemen play choruses. The band he played in played for thousands in the great big ballroom.” On its ceiling, a machine projected (Micki imagined) through an endless film over blinking lights for stars. “They’d play a medley of all the old familiar tunes.”
Hank could still hear Berigan, still a sideman, who would let go with his “Was That a Dream?”
“He was a ’go-man, I was a sideman. He’s dead now, I’m alive.”
As Hank talked, she slid her eyes on a younger man alongside the organizer Pete and watched him with his scrolls. She could not tell for sure if he was he; she’d been holding him in her mind for so long, creating reality, sleight of hand, sleight of mind.
She could see his long neck leading to the dip in his back. Sensing her stare, he glanced over his shoulder at her.
She was studying the ceiling over him. Others there in the great maroon were also tilting themselves toward the Cell ceiling, tin pressed into a squared-off design, to see it. She was looking up. Hank too was staring. Everyone was stargazing.
* * *
Hank was rattling on. “Berigan joined us in the last months in Detroit. All the celebrities came, the big shots. The time was Prohibition. Mr. Sloane, head of General Motors, came on weeknights, Amelia Earhart on weekends. They applauded Berigan, as he stopped the show with ‘I’m Nobody’s Baby.’”
When the Crash came, everyone was standing around, bemoaning what they’d lost. They did not tune up for dance music much at first. Eventually, players tried “PC dances” for a percentage of what was taken in at the door. We’d play and earn only a few cents the whole night long. We were trying to hang on.
Things started to come back. “Talking pictures became the thing. Unless you belonged to the biggest band in the world,” he was saying, “you found little to do. Finally, the next world war brought Swing to a halt.”
Who knew if this man before Michaela would stay around the Cell for long? Was this here Hank volunteer material? He asked her for a drink. Without telling him that the Cell offered nothing soothing or lifting, no alcohol, pills, uppers or downers for its youthful clientele, now that grown-ups took over against other townspeople who wanted the Cell clubhouse banned and banished.
The cupboard below the counter held two warm drinks. One she handed one to him and the other hers for a later make-believe pick-me-up.
The music was loud; they could not talk, nor could she. Or hear. Or see. Hank looked around the floor.
* * *
The great maroon room held the usual groups. They little intermixed. One, the truants and wayward ones, called the other the would-be collegians and collegiates. They danced or hung out and around, both of them or neither, insulted each other, hardly suiting each other.
Everyone though was occupied. No one was out of order now. The organizer Pete was at the end of the space and with the younger guy at the other end to measure the floor space.
* * *
Only the musician stayed nearby scrutinizing the growing crowd coming in, now that night was falling.
* * *
Near dusk, Michaela had been standing on the street, all silence, when she’d glimpsed the player’s early family once again. The last light of day inflamed windows, still visible in the area buildings, unlike the Cell’s mucky blocked-up ones, as she waited for its youth organizer to unlock the door to the Cell farther down the alleyway. Something creaked behind her just before sundown. On the flats of the land along the riverbed, the unexpected arrived.
Lamps awake lit up the carriage sheen poised there on the street, while someone flashed a camera for photographs, and some museum somewhere came to life. The hair of its passengers flew around their faces, while Michaela’s then shorter hair stayed put. Center of the night, Lana, daughter of Hank rarely seen, wore a long black skirt cut on the bias. She pulled it up as if it would drag. Her toe touched down on the coach step as if the ground would fail her. Her partner in sideburns and crown waves above his white tie, steered them ahead toward the nearby supper club. A flip of her long hair alerted Michaela the onlooker.
Lana and her brothers grew up half a generation behind Michaela, and next-door. The celebrated younger woman was shown in the newspaper the next day, where Micki confirmed what she knew. The man with the hair and tux from the night before would dance with his truelove at the club and was quoted in the society news, “I wooed her for years as a teenager.”
When Lana had first met him, she avoided him. He’d continued with a local reporter. Still, he sought her until she consented. Still, they’d not yet married.
Michaela’s widowed mother was surprised. “See how well the younger woman turned out from her role as sweeper to her mother’s and Hank’s brood of kids.” Temporarily, their mother, Micki’s now former next-door neighbor, resorted to public aid, while their sons began to join the military.
Her by-then ex, Hank, had exited long before. Michaela had known his music from their next-door basements. Before she had been aware of the silence of the music, the music stopped. Those who lived nearby had been relieved by that family’s departure.
* * *
She turned. If the mirror displayed her as ghastly or ghostly, it pictured him as deathly. “Name’s Hank,” he extended his hand to hers. She said, “I remember. Mine’s Micki.”
* * *
Spying them, his youngest daughter, Annie, her dance done, scrammed off the dance space, ran up to him and poked him in the ribs. Beneath her unruly yellow hair, her huge blue eyes looked smoky and seldom blinked.
She yowled, “Pip died. Pip, Pip, Pip. You promised me a new bird. You did. Jimmy took him out of his cage. He pulled out his tail feathers, not me. You promised.”
“Maybe,” Hank replied. She danced off. “She’s almost nine and gives me trouble. I clean up in the morning. But later she calls me at work at night to tell me she’s picking everything up for him, cleaning up. Instead, she messes up the house. When I came home, I saw the pots were on cushions every which way. The lampshades were upside down. My records, Bach partitas, were all over the place out of their covers. One minute she’s good, the next so bad. She’s told so many lies, nobody believes her when she tells the truth.”
“That’s not true,” the girl spoke up, as she popped over again.
“What’s the matter? Can’t you supervise her instead of leave her alone?” Micki asked.
“I’m used to loneliness,” he said. “I’m a loner. But she plays alone too much.”
“At times, she’s too bossy with her only friend. They’re both losers.” Still, to help the friendship along, the only one the girl had, all along, Hank gave some of her old things to the other girl. Mandy objected, by saying, “You’re helping yourself to my new things.” Hank denied this problem. “Not so.”
“Her older brother’s troubled himself. When his mother, my wife, left me.”
Mandy said, “You left.”
“Her older brother’s a mama’s pet,” Hank, the father, said, about the son “who was admitted to the Pavilion. Now he’s better and living with someone else.”
Hank had fixed up the basement of his home, dividing it into rooms with cinder block walls, for them and their new baby.
“When I work at odd jobs day or night, they watch my little daughter Annie, who stays with them and, then, belongs to a real family.”
* * *
Abruptly, in the Cell, someone turned on extra lights. Micki could see how someone must have stained the counter over layers of grime, the spills darkening it. Over the serving area center, Hank braced himself. Near where they stood, a large lamp with a globe of opaque glass with brilliance in old Technicolor. These colors edged the mirror. In it, the light now backlit her face to semi-human, until someone else once again shut it off, leaving the room to its fewer lights, as the organizer and the other man unscrewed the lamp to keep roughhousing Cell boys from breaking it. So, they carried the turn-of-the-century globe to the sub-cellar.
During this activity, Hank was telling no one in particular at the end of his musical career he used to play in places like this one. Now the Cell was reorganizing its own passions. Sooner or later anyone there fell into talking, taking part.
While telling him about the Cell, Micki lifted herself off from leaning on the bar, while he rolled his sleeves up, ready to go out into the heat or make himself at home.
He used to blow a horn every day, “But not so much now. I can play rock. Or classical. But I’m better at jazz. Swing.”
“Swing’s making a comeback.”
“Nostalgia: It was a musical war. Yours won.”
“No, only yesterday someone said she was getting into old crooners.”
“That’s different from swing.”
“Along the same line.”
After a pause, he said, “It was a musical war; rock won over swing.”
On his forearm, when he squeezed his daughter to his side in his style of hug, Michaela watched his arm. When he twisted it, the tattoo gestured and jabbed the air. This she-dagger rode his ulna, inside his funny bone. Busty pectorals cleaved there above an American flag bodice expected to end in a mermaid’s tail bone. Instead it tapered into a blade.
“What war were you in?” Micki asked.
He’d just missed WWII. The Navy wouldn’t take him, nor the Army, but the Merchant Marine did. So he missed active duty, when married with young ones, and he was too old for the one going on in Indochina.
Over the jukebox music, he yelled. “Two of my boys went to ’Nam, one never made it home. The youngest never got there.”
“Ever in a battle?” Micki asked.
He didn’t answer. “One’s alive, the one I’m looking for. He’ll do anything for a fast buck.” He gave Micki a card with telephone numbers for home and work if she caught sight of his son. He made a fist down low for emphasis, the tattoo on the arm flexed, when he spoke. He moved it behind the counter and talked. Mandy rushed off the dance floor.
Once when his daughter was asleep, he started talking about her when she saw her brother walk by her bed. She tee-heed. “My brother Jimmy Tony was stealing my best clothes and money. But I pretended not to see him, because he might do something to me. If you spy his cow boots, their skin’s two-toned stitches.”
“He eats so much of his girlfriend’s pasta, everyone calls him ‘Tony.’ If he’s down here in the Cell, in cow-boots, call him ‘Tony.’ Besides he relieves others on the job, like me a floater. Time off, he might drop off here.”
“The best brother,” Hank whispered, “drowned nine months ago in the river.
“Now she has one less brother and no mother. I’m her mother, her father and her brother, the one she used to go everywhere with. Her sisters are somewhere. She really only has me.
“She needs friends,” he said.
“I have friends,” Annie insisted.
“You can’t have too many these days.”
His eyes darkened. To get over his troubles, his last wife’s death, his son’s suffocating, he said, “I have a few drinks, slip on Paganini, lift weights to keep going. I moonlight in extra time for money.
“I’m grown now. I have good memories, bad days. My life’s done. But hers is different. It’s beginning.
“She’s got troubles.”
“I’ll think about her,” Micki told him. She would too, though the girl was too young for the Cell gang. Maybe, maybe not.
“If you ever see Jimmy Tony with blond loose hair, let me know?”
“I’ll get him before he gets at me.”
He saluted. She saw the lineup of black-and-blue indelible puncture marks and scabs on his arm, jabbed by tubular needles.
He shouldn’t be here with kids, she thought.
He retreated upstairs out of the Cell.
Someone flashed the lights off and on. Must be closing time. Thudding resounded within the walls of the stairwell. Everyone looked up.
A rangy youth seen first in the mirror, with longish blond hair, stood at the door of the Cell’s top of the stairwell.
Joey tried to run up to plug him. Tall Louie sought to slug him but stopped short and bracketed the blond guy with his arms with sharp elbows pitted outward to prevent him from hitting some other guy.
Pete the new organizer signaled with the lights on and off. One Cellmate threw himself up on the marble counter to reach the clock and spike off its hands. From then on, the Cell was a timeless place. Everyone left for the night.
About the author, Jean E. Verthein: I earned a master’s of fine arts degree from Sarah Lawrence College and received two writing grants from the Ragdale Foundation. My work has been published by Adelaide Literary Magazine, Artifact Nouveau, The Saint Ann’s Review, Downtown Brooklyn, Gival Press, Green Mountains Review, Scarlet Leaf Review, Hypertext Magazine, Litbreak, Oracle Fine Arts Review, and other presses.
Around the block from where she lives, another brick row house waits. Victorian like the rest, with deep blue trim and a stoop of four marble steps. The not-so-young couple that lives there moved into the neighborhood about the same time she left the suburbs and chose the city to find an engaged life. Hoping for weekends that didn’t include the rituals of lawn mowers and Weedwackers and piles of mulch. Planning for museums and long river walks.
She saw the couple a few times right after her move: the woman with a full-to-bursting belly, the man with his fifties crew cut. He was nothing to her then—just one of her neighbors. Occasionally she saw him stoop-sitting or carrying groceries home. She remembers talking to him a few months ago when neighbors gathered to chat.
Today, she is sixty-five and Medicare-ready. Because her hormones have long ago declared a ceasefire and her eggs have long ago disappeared, there can’t be a chemical trail running invisibly toward that neighbor’s house. But he has sensed something through the summer heat. He asks for her number one afternoon in front of her house while his dog wraps the leash around the urine-scented tree.
“Here’s my home phone,” she tries.
“No, your cell.” He laughs. “That way we can chat.”
She is sure of what the neighbor wants—as if the book on seduction has suddenly opened to her again. Just two weeks earlier, she’d left her second husband in the middle of their European vacation after a fight that never belonged in a lavish restaurant overlooking Venice’s Grand Canal. Lashing together her stuffed bags and carry-on, she rolled them down the street, making her way to the airport alone.
She’s spent the time at home revisiting old photo albums filled with her lost young man. They’d been married fifteen years when he died, gone before he could bald, work on his beer belly, or become bored with her. Disappeared in the middle of their lives along with all their memories, so she could never again turn to someone and ask: Remember when? No one would ever know her young, or dream a long future with her, or remind her of that exact moment their children were born. It should have lasted fifty years, that marriage.
But the neighbor doesn’t know her story; he only pauses in his dog-walking to get that number and start words flowing between them.
* * *
Let’s meet for coffee, the neighbor texts. Or for a drink or dinner. I’m really free next week.
So transparent, she thinks, as she loads on the wedding bands and her engagement ring. And chooses a dress that shows her figure but doesn’t reveal too much. How her body has changed in the last ten years, slackening into an odd variation of itself. She turns away from what she sees.
Locking the door behind her, she thinks that she’s always lived an honest life. Holding to rules that might protect her from moral disaster: Keep shared secrets; don’t hold grudges. Don’t envy others even when they’ve loved the same person for a lifetime. Don’t sleep with more than one man at a time. And certainly not with a man who belongs to someone else.
She isn’t even sure it’s him when she enters the bar, running through what she remembers from the sidewalk interview. That clipped hair. Tanned skin. Trim for a guy around fifty. Waiting for him to turn around, she feels all the years compress into this single moment. She is both that skinny teen waiting for her breasts to appear and the woman who has collected more experiences than anyone merits. Time confuses her, filling her with sadness.
“I’m not sure about my marriage,” she starts, getting to the truth even before she sips her wine. Even before he can start his seduction. “Not sure he can change. Or of what I want.”
She wants to say: I know what you’re about and you scare me. This scares me.
“I’m very attracted to you,” he says. “Was from the moment I saw you talking to your friends.”
“On the stoop?” she asks. “That was months ago.”
“I think about you whenever I walk by your house.”
“With or without the dog?”
He is laughing. “Marriage is hard.” Then he adds, “There are gaps,” as if admitting a secret.
She advises like someone’s mother. “But you have a child. You must be careful.”
“Supplementing works,” he offers.
“To fill in those gaps?” When he nods, she says, “Have you done this before?” His hand trembles slightly, the ice hitting the glass. As if he’s afraid.
Supplementing, she thinks. Like increasing vitamin D. Or devising a financial plan to insure both growth and safety. Or adding fiber to every meal. Supplementing: a new way to describe an ongoing problem since biblical times—one so common there’s even a Commandment against it. Number seven, she calculates.
So why that night does she say No, then Yes when he opens his front door? “Do you want to see the house?” Hadn’t she always been curious about that third-floor addition?
And first No, then Yes when he asks, “May I kiss you?”
He touches her face, his hands in her hair as he guides her into the kiss. Her hands stay by her side, and she wonders if she should move them. He pulls them around his neck and plays at her lips with his best technique. She tastes alcohol on his tongue.
She leaves so quickly the neighbor must wonder why, almost slamming the door behind her as she runs toward her house. But she is simply amazed that she has dared. The first new mouth in years. In front of her mirror, she wonders if this sin is etched on her face. Across the places where she rubs creams and glycolic acids each night.
She thinks of a statue that long ago beckoned—even before she was naked with a man, even before she had kissed passionately. The man’s hand rests gently on his lover’s bare thigh. The woman’s arm is around his neck, but he holds back, restraint tightening the muscles along his back. Nothing exists for them but the sensations their mouths produce. Their marble bodies glowed before her. For the first time in years, she wants to visit that sculpture. To revisit that kiss.
* * *
A few days later, in the middle of her living room, the neighbor’s second kiss is familiar and hungry. His mouth more insistent, less polite; his hands strong against her back. She’s aware of the fullness of his lips and the rhythm of the kiss. The very shape of his body.
“Mmm,” he mutters. “I’ve been thinking about you all day.”
But she remembers kissing her lost husband the first time behind the college dorms. He’d pulled her close, holding her against him in the spring air. Couples were locked together in every dark spot next to the building. Back then there were no husbands or wives or nosy neighbors to hide from. No teenage kid to damage. No grown children to disappoint.
“I want to kiss you now,” that lost husband had said when they were nineteen.
“If you didn’t,” she answered, her mouth against his ear, “I’d be rather disappointed.”
She can still pull the words and feel that long-ago kiss, one of thousands before the disease ignited within him to destroy. Before she washed his face after his breathing had stopped, and kissed that stilled mouth one last time.
The neighbor studies her face. “Are you here?” he asks. “Here with me?”
“Yes,” she answers.
* * *
Before the third kiss, in the corner of his hallway far from the windows where someone might see, the neighbor holds her tightly. The colored bubbles have flown between their houses, between their separate beds a block away. Foreplay that’s so provocative she can’t breathe. Can’t imagine being wanted this way after so long. Her now husband has stopped kissing her, along with everything else. A quick peck on the lips seems to be all she merits. She, who has always relished the physical.
For the first time she gives in to the neighbor’s kiss. She thinks of swooning Victorians, of young girls who lose control and later pay, of foolish old women chasing the past. She wants to cry and sing at the same time, to call out: I am still here. She wants everything this man can offer, played out in those bubbles that find her instantly in the bed she has taken over.
It’s the same she once shared with her lost husband—her lifetime bed. An antique they’d found on the Outer Banks when just engaged. The one she made her babies on. The one where she clasped him to her that night before the hospital, not realizing that they would never lie together again. The one she wept in after he died.
With her second marriage, she changed the mattress. Jettisoned the older one with hopes for the future. That husband, still in Europe, calls her daily, begging her to keep his spot until he returns. If she lets him come home. Tonight she will sleep on the diagonal, claiming all the territory as her own.
* * *
For days, all she is sure of are the sensations the neighbor’s mouth has ignited, like in some pulsing romance novel she always ignored in the store. I will, she thinks. I’m my own person. I want to live. I’m tired of being abandoned.
But the neighbor panics. I’m not sure I can, he writes. Afraid of making a mess. Please understand. I’m very, very sorry.
The texts slow down, then stop. She sees him on his stoop with his son. Walking with his wife on the street. Summer is over, and in the indifferent air, rules are once again important.
Only an interlude, she tells herself after she reads, I’ve enjoyed getting to know you. It’s beginning, middle, and end already marked. She will not deceive her own face in the mirror. A small moment, she knows. And nothing more. Her husband will return with his apologies packed in his oversize bags and with his secret, tight mouth.
* * *
In winter to come, the house around the block will be closed. She will watch the shades open and close, the window boxes cleared of flowers, the collected trash on the curb for recycling. Inside will be the man who once kissed her. Before, she might have convinced herself that none of this mattered and passion was over. That she was old enough to be happy with what she had. That she shouldn’t again expect something like those three kisses and all those imaginings.
But nothing will work against what the future cannot hold. Because in his coming and disappearing, in the colored bubbles that once floated through a sensual twilight, he has left her pregnant with desire.
About the Author: Phyllis Carol Agins has long found inspiration in Philadelphia, PA. Two novels, a children’s book, and an architectural study were all published during her years there. Recent short fiction has appeared in Minetta Review, Soundings East, Pennsylvania English, and Lillith, among more than thirty-five other literary journals. Lately, she divides her time between Philly and Nice, France, adding the Mediterranean rhythms to her sources of inspiration. She has recently finished FINDING MAURICE, a novel about Algeria and France during the 1960’s.
It takes me a minute to realize that my mother is talking, and I reluctantly look up from my book. “What?”
“You need to get ready, we’re leaving for the ‘Preserve Chapman Island’ meeting in ten minutes.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
The meeting has nothing to do with me—it’s just an excuse for my parents and their friends to drink martinis and talk about getting rid of the cannery on the island.
When she doesn’t say anything, I add in the bitchiest, most sarcastic voice I can muster, “I thought I was grounded?”
Silently she scowls at me with her hands on her hips. “You’re coming with us. That’s final.”
As I expect, the “meeting” is a bunch of old people drinking and laughing too loud. As soon as we walk in, my parents are pulled into a conversation and I take a drink off a tray—a gin and tonic or a vodka tonic, I’m not sure—and walk out to the sunroom. I ignore the women talking at the end of the room, and sip my drink and stare out at the sailing-school boats in the bay. Watching the little boats pulling on their moorings, I thank God that sailing lessons are long behind me. All the other kids seemed to love it, but for me it was torture. Even when the water was calm, it was a blue so dark it was nearly black. I spent every minute on the boat worrying about what was hidden under the surface—mackerel being chased by stripers, lobsters crawling over the rocks or something else I didn’t want to let myself imagine. I tried to convince myself that whatever was sliding through the water wouldn’t hurt me, but every time my sailboat capsized, I’d scramble as fast as I could to right it and climb back in. I couldn’t bear to be in the water, my legs dangling down into the black, thinking of everything that might be lurking below.
I startle when someone next to me says, “Care for a canapé, Miss?”
“Uh, no thanks,” I say distractedly, glancing at the server then back out at the water.
“What the hell, Frankie?” the girl says.
I turn to look at her. She’s wearing black pants and a white shirt, but she’s young and her long hair is pulled back in a ponytail.
She stares at me with disbelief. “It’s me—Shannon—we hung out at Tina’s last week? And like a million other times too?”
“Right! Of course I know you, Shannon.” I force a laugh.
“For a minute I thought you didn’t recognize me!” She says, laughing, “Thank God! I didn’t want to think you’re like everybody else here!”
“Oh, please!” I say, rolling my eyes. “Don’t confuse me with my parents!”
“Will you be at Pete’s tonight? Everyone’s going and the twins got a keg.”
“I’m not sure if I can. I’m still grounded.”
Mrs. Carson sees me through the doorway and comes out to the porch. “Oh, Francine! It’s so nice to see you! Charlotte will be sorry she missed you; she’s not back from London yet.”
I can feel Shannon watching me as I nod slightly.
Turning to Shannon, she says, “Why don’t you refresh your tray, and please tell someone in the kitchen there’s a spill on the rug in the study that will have to get cleaned up quickly or it’s going to set.”
To me, she says, “As soon as Charlotte’s back we’ll have to get out on the tennis courts.”
As Shannon walks away I blurt out, “See you tonight.”
Mrs. Carson seems startled, but Shannon doesn’t acknowledge what I said.
“Nice party,” I say to Mrs. Carson, “I’m going to go outside for a bit,” and go out the screen door to the lawn. I wander around and then sit on the tree swing. Lazily I push myself and think yet again how annoying it is to be grounded, especially since there are only a few weeks left of summer. The funny thing about getting caught Saturday is that TJ had promised the night would be epic, but it was actually one of the most boring nights all summer. When he picked me up, I was just happy to be done with the SAT tutor my mother had somehow found to come out to the cottage. The tutoring—and my father and brother’s constant arguing—were driving me crazy. In most ways it wasn’t different from any other summer, but somehow everything was grating on my nerves.
TJ picked me up in his faded red pickup, and as we drove I was content to feel the breeze and watch the sky smeared with orange and pink. We stopped at the empty parking lot at Crescent Beach and smoked some pot while we watched the sunset. As usual, the pot put TJ in a philosophical mood.
“There are two kinds of people in the world, Frankie,” he’d said, counting on his fingers. “One, the kind who are petrified of doing anything because they might screw up their one precious life. And, two, the kind that have to find a reason every day not to end it all.” He looked over and took my hand. “Am I right?”
I smiled. “You might be.”
We hung out for a while longer, and as he pulled out of the parking lot, TJ asked, “You ready to get this evening started?”
“Sure,” I said, adding, “Hell, yah!” Trying to sound more excited.
Leaning back against the headrest, I felt sleepy from the pot and thought about what TJ had said. He said things like that a lot—usually when he was trying to convince me to do something like get high, jump off the dock railing, or have sex with him. And maybe there was something to his philosophy, but I know there are way more than two kinds of people in the world. There are the ones like the kids at home who are going to succeed and live impressive lives, despite all the ways they’re bound to fuck up. There are the clueless, oblivious ones like my dad, who doesn’t seem to register anyone except himself. And there are the “everything is wonderful as long as the neighbors think it is” people like my mother, who is entirely focused on creating the appearance of perfection. Then there’s my brother who’s threatening to be some kind of a rebel, but who I’m sure will end up exactly where he’s expected to be. But if TJ wants to see the world as black and white, who am I to disagree?
“Let’s get this party started!” He accelerated briefly before stopping at a traffic light.
When the light changed, TJ hesitated for a moment before turning right like the car in front of us. We drove for a few blocks back toward the bridge to the island, and I wondered where we were going. Maybe to get some food at the Clam Hut? But then he turned left, and took an immediate right heading away from town, just like the blue Camry in front of us. I glanced at him but he seemed to be concentrating.
We drove for a bit and I had no idea where we were. The road became narrower, winding through dense woods. Finally, it straightened out and we passed a farm with huge fields stretching out on either side, the empty fields lined with fence posts and sagging strings of barbed wire.
“Where are we?” I asked. I honestly didn’t know what town we were in, and there was no one else around except the car in front of us.
I looked at TJ and he shrugged.
The Camry was still in front of us, and it accelerated and then suddenly turned left into a neighborhood without signaling, and TJ turned in after it.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
He looked at me and said with a laugh, “Check this guy out! He is totally freaking…”
Just as he said that, the Toyota took a quick left and then a quick right. I had to grab onto the armrest as the truck swerved and the car in front of us sped back out of the neighborhood, TJ keeping up with him.
“What are you doing?” I asked, realizing I’d been holding my breath.
“Oh my God!” he said, laughing again. “This guy is losing his shit!”
The Camry blew through a stop sign and raced down another quiet side street as we followed close behind, and I wanted to tell TJ to slow down. Then suddenly, with tires squealing, the guy in front of us turned into a driveway. I wondered if it was even his house.
TJ slowed his truck as we passed and I could see the driver—an old guy with short gray hair and a beard—staring at us in the rearview mirror, his eyes bugging out. As we watched, the car door started to open. TJ stepped on it and we sped down the street and turned back out on the main road.
TJ slapped the wheel like he’d just seen the funniest thing in the world. Finally, he turned and looked at me. “What?”
I could feel my heart pounding. “What was the point of that exactly?”
“Don’t you ever feel like you need to do something…unexpected? I don’t know Frankie, if you don’t get it, I can’t explain it to you.”
We drove in silence for a few minutes, and I considered asking him if he’d take me home. I didn’t feel like going out anymore, and having an early night sounded much more appealing than hanging out at a random party.
“I’m not like you,” TJ said, seemingly out of nowhere. “I don’t come from a rich family with lots of houses.”
“We only have two houses,” I interrupted. “Well, three, I guess, if you count the ski cabin but…” I let my voice fade away, hearing how stupid I sounded.
TJ didn’t even look over at me, seeming lost in thought. “Whatever—one house, three houses—it’s not just that and you know it.” He scowled at the road.
“And it’s not just the money, although that’s part of it. It’s more that you’re not from here. Your life is already bigger than this place. My life has always been—and will probably always be—here. But the island is just a place you come sometimes, a stopping point on the way to your real life.”
We rode in silence. I wanted to contradict him, but I couldn’t think of what to say without sounding condescending. And the truth is, I got what he was saying.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m looking through binoculars, you know?” he said. “Like all I can see is one tiny area in front of me…when I know there’s so much more out there. There has to be,” he added softly.
We stopped at Dairy Queen for hot fudge sundaes, and someone told us that the party on the beach had already been broken up. So we drove out to the marsh and drank the six pack he’d brought, until I was tired of pushing his hands away from the zipper on my jeans and said I had to get home.
I don’t even know what time it was when I got home. I just have a vague memory of staring up at the stars as TJ drove me home, but that could have been a memory from another cloudless night when we were driving around. All I know is that there’s a different sky in Maine— where millions and billions of stars crowd the black night sky, a sky that doesn’t exist anywhere else.
TJ shut the headlights off before turning into the driveway, and he stopped far from the house. I wasn’t even drunk, and I’ve snuck in so many times I know how to keep the kitchen door from squeaking, but that didn’t matter since my parents were sitting in the living room. One thing I do remember, is saying “Oh, fuck” when I saw them.
Of course they acted outraged and grounded me for a week. Listening to their lecture about my lack of responsibility, I felt like it was a scene scripted to make them feel like good parents. It was such an overreaction—and especially stupid given how lame the night was—but for some reason I didn’t feel like arguing.
The first night of my sentence, Jay and I were both home and we played Yahtzee on the screened porch like we did when we were kids. Our parents were out and we sipped cans of beer and watched the sunset. As the darkness took over we didn’t bother to turn on the porch lights, our game forgotten.
Out of nowhere Jay asked, “So why are you hanging out with TJ? He seems like such a loser.”
Pissed off, I sat up. “No he’s not. He’s…”
I tried to think of a response while at the same time trying to figure out what I really thought of him. “Maybe he doesn’t belong to the yacht club, but he’s better than most of the douches that come here for the summer.”
Jay seemed to think about that for a minute. “Fine, but I’ve seen him doing wheelies on his motorcycle, and I heard he can get kind of out of control.”
“Jesus, Jay,” I said with a laugh. “It’s called being a kid—doing backflips off the pier isn’t exactly a criminal offense.”
“I know…I just don’t want you to get hurt.”
It actually made me kind of happy to hear him say that. “I know. TJ blows a lot of smoke too. He jokes about not living past twenty-five, and going out in a blaze of glory. But he’s not serious about any of that. He’s actually pretty smart and will probably end up going to college.”
After a minute, I added, “Don’t tell Mom, but I’m actually starting to wrap my head around senior year and college, too.” We ended up talking about my top college choices and whether I should apply early like he did, or keep my options open.
I’m thinking about that conversation when my parents finally leave the party. I’ve been sitting on the swing for more than an hour when they come out. They seem slightly surprised to see me, as if they forgot they dragged me there. I don’t speak on the ride home, and they’re so busy talking loudly—or arguing (sometimes it’s hard to tell). I try to pretend I’m not there. They’ve both definitely had a few, so at least I know I won’t have a hard time sneaking out later.
I call TJ from the kitchen phone as soon as we get home, and make a sandwich and eat it in my room. At ten o’clock, I put a sweatshirt, a flashlight, and two joints I’ve been saving in an old backpack. If I have to, I can climb out the window and climb out over the porch roof, but from the hallway I can hear my parents’ voices coming from the porch. From the volume of their voices and laughter, I know that I can go down the back staircase and out the side door. I make sure to shut off my light and put my pillow under the quilt in case they check in on me. I don’t think they ever do, but better safe than sorry.
At the bottom of the stairs I almost bump into Jay leaving the kitchen with a bowl of ice cream.
“Oh my God! You gave me a heart attack!” I whisper as loudly as I dare. I put my hand to my chest and can feel my heart beating wildly.
“I gave you a heart attack? What are you doing?”
“Right. For God’s sake, Frankie, you’re grounded!” he interrupts.
“Fuck you, Jay.”
“Nice,” he responds.
“No, seriously, you’re not in charge of me.”
“Maybe not, but that doesn’t mean that you’re not being stupid…”
“Stupid? Wanting to go to a party and hang out with people that are real, and aren’t just the same country club assholes?” My voice grows louder but I don’t care.
“No, I get it,” Jay says, his face serious. “I really do.”
He reaches out and touches my arm. “I just worry about you—especially with TJ.”
I consider telling him to fuck off again, but looking at his face I say, “I know, Jay. But you don’t have to worry about me. It’s summer and I just want to have a little fun, I’ll be fine.”
I turn to go but he holds onto my arm. “OK, promise me? And don’t be too late.”
“Okay, Jean,” I say smiling. We both hate it when we call each other by our mother’s name.
“Promise?” he asks again, gently squeezing my arm.
The moon is nearly full and I don’t even have to turn on the flashlight as I walk down the driveway to the end of the road. Waiting for TJ, I slap at the mosquitos that buzz incessantly around my head, and I wonder if I should have said I’d go out. But as soon as I see his headlights, I’m glad I did. There are only a few more weeks until I have to go back home and deal with the real world. I need to seize every chance I have to enjoy what’s probably going to be my last full summer on the island.
The party ends up being way more fun than I expected. Jason has a big house, and his parents’ bar is well-stocked. We do shots and then someone cranks the music and everyone starts dancing. I’m having a good time, but after we’ve been dancing for a while I look over at TJ and catch his eye. He winks and I wink back, then he walks over and takes my hand.
“Ready to go to Deer Point? It’ll be romantic.” He raises his eyebrows trying to make me laugh.
I smile and rest my head on his shoulder. “Another time. I’m ready to go home.”
He kisses my head and we walk to the car.
It’s only a couple miles back to the cottage across the bridge to the island. I sit close to TJ as he drives. He has one hand resting on my leg and I put my head on his shoulder. It’s hard to keep my eyes open, I suddenly feel as if I could sleep forever.
“Tonight was fun, thank you,” I say.
“Frankie, you don’t have to thank me. Being with you is the best part of my summer…the best part of everything, really.”
I’m thinking about what he said as we approach the bridge. Even though it’s not even four o’clock in the morning, the sky is changing. Not quite gray, but there’s a hint that the sun is about to rise.
I take TJ’s hand and he looks at me. As he turns his gaze back to the road, he says, “Oh, shit.”
As I look up, the blurry shape of a deer is rushing toward the side of the truck. TJ jerks his arm and I fall to the side as the pickup swerves. My head twists sharply as we slam against the bridge railing, and I feel a rush of air as the door flies open. As I wait for everything to stop, I realize that I am falling. And there must be sound, but I don’t hear a thing as I feel the truck slam against the water and the rush of cold surround me as everything goes dark.
About the Author, Kim Venkataraman: My work has appeared or is forthcoming in Amarillo Bay, Carbon Culture Review, Desert Voices, East Jasmine Review, Forge, Halfway Down the Stairs, The MacGuffin, The Licking River Review, Midway Journal, Nassau Review, Penmen Review, Redivider, Riverwind, Spout Magazine, Talking River, Valparaiso Fiction Review, and Willow Review. I live outside of Boston, and spend time during the summer in Maine where I grew up.
Jessa smiles the first time that she runs away from the hospital—the same smile that always wins Amelie over, bright and wild. She stands in Amelie’s bedroom like it’s the only place she belongs as Amelie muffles a yawn behind her hands and says, “Jess? How’d you get here—I thought you were supposed to still be at the hospital?”
“It’s okay, I’m way better now. Like a whole new person, you know?” Jessa says and something inside Amelie sinks because Jessa has fed her those exact same lines at least a hundred times. “And anyway, I didn’t really like it there. I’d rather be here with you.”
Amelie pushes down her doubts as she climbs out of bed and wraps her arms around Jessa. Her body feels so light, like a strong gust of wind might carry her away into the wide prairie sky.
On their first date, Jake watches Amelie eat—fork and knife slicing her meal into tiny pieces. There’s only one restaurant in town, so they slide into the corner booth that has belonged to Jake and his friends for as long as Amelie can remember.
“Has Jess come back from the hospital yet?” he says. Amelie blushes every time he speaks—tall and broad-shouldered, he is so beautiful that sometimes she forgets to breathe.
“Yeah, the hospital signed her out this morning.”
“I’m glad she’s back. But let’s go, we’re late for the movie,” he says, blue eyes drifting up to the clock hanging on the wall. When Amelie glances back down at her half empty plate, he says, “You weren’t going to eat all of that anyway, right?”
“What? Oh—no.” She shakes her head and pushes it away, although the smell of food still makes her hungry stomach grumble.
Later, his hands cover her body—fingers running across the smooth grooves of her bones.
The next time that Amelie visits Jessa, it feels like she is barely there at all—brown eyes huge in her delicate face. They sit quiet on the floor of Jessa’s bedroom as sunlight falls through the open window. White curtains blow in the breeze.
“So you’re feeling better?” Amelie draws her knees up to her chest.
“Yeah, I feel great.”
“Why do you do it?”
“Do what?” Jessa blinks, thin cotton shirt clinging to every curve of her vertebrae. They stare at each other in silence before Amelie says, “Never mind. I just—I missed you so much.”
“I missed you too.” Jessa hesitates before she takes Amelie’s hand. Amelie closes her eyes and wishes that they could just stay like this for the rest of their lives.
Jake meets Amelie late at the party out in the country—loud music thrumming like a second heartbeat deep inside her body.
“Want to dance?” He smiles, slinging an arm like an anchor around her shoulders.
“Okay,” she says and he takes her hand, pushing through the milling bodies as she drifts in his wake. They dance through several long songs—his heavy hands wander from her waist as they sway in slow circles.
When he goes outside to smoke, she glimpses Jessa through a brief gap in the crowd—thin, almost ethereal body moving to the music as people watch like they can’t look away. Amelie doesn’t blame them.
She waits, but Jake never comes back from his smoke break and so Amelie pushes through the crowd until she reaches Jessa. They dance the rest of the night away and when Amelie places her hands on Jessa’s waist, she can feel her hip bones, sharp beneath her clothes.
Later, they both crawl into an empty bed, heads heavy from exhaustion. Jessa falls asleep almost immediately, despite the pills that she has been popping all evening—body warm beneath the sheets. Amelie stays awake, listening to the sound of her breathing.
The second time that Jessa runs away, Amelie also stops eating. She cuts her meals into small bites and pushes the pieces around on her plate until it grows cold, and then she throws it out. At night, she lays awake in the dark, waiting for Jessa to tap on her window, demanding to be let inside. When she sleeps, she doesn’t dream about anything.
“Are you on a diet or something? You’ve lost a lot of weight,” Jake says one morning, sitting half-dressed at her kitchen table.
“No.” Amelie sips black coffee, taste bitter in the back of her throat.
“Well you look great.”
“Thanks.” Amelie stands, pushing back her chair—its legs scrape against the kitchen tiles. When she shrugs into her jacket, he says, “Where are you going?”
“Out to look for Jess. No one’s seen her since she ran away from the hospital.”
She kisses him on the cheek before she leaves.
Amelie visits all of Jessa’s favorite places, always expecting to find her waiting—smiling like it’s some kind of game. But she returns home alone as the sun sets, feet sore from walking all around town.
Up in her bedroom, Amelie shuffles through all the clothes in her closet, picking a few potential outfits to wear on her next date with Jake.
“Hey, could you just say something?” She sends the message to Jessa and waits for her phone to vibrate. When it stays silent, she tosses it down on the covers of her bed and bites her bottom lip. Her head hurts, a dull pain pulsing at the back of her skull.
She tries on the outfits in front of the mirror, spinning in slow circles to study the way the clothes hang from her body. Then she strips down to her underwear and runs her hands along her rib cage—feeling all the empty spaces between her bones.
On their next date, Jake drives far out of town—parking the truck on the side of a deserted dirt road, headlights brightening the night. They sit in the open bed of the vehicle, passing a bottle of wine back and forth beneath the stars.
Amelie only takes small sips, eyes tracing the constellations in the heavens above as Jake curls his thick-muscled arm around her waist. When she checks her phone, screen highlighting the delicate contours of her face, he says, “Have you heard anything from her yet?”
“No.” Amelie knows who he is talking about without even asking.
“Well, she’s got to show up eventually. But it’s kind of nice that I’ve got you all to myself right now,” he says and kisses her, mouth rough and hungry.
When he pulls off her loose cotton shirt, he grins at her skinny body. Amelie wonders if it’s possible to become thin enough to just disappear completely.
She showers after Jake drops her off at her place, shivering beneath the slow-warming water. Crawling into bed, she pulls the pillows over her head and breathes deep, like maybe the scent of Jessa’s hair still lingers caught in the fabric. But it doesn’t smell like anything and so she reaches for her phone on the nightstand.
“Please say something.” Amelie sends another text to Jessa, slender fingers tapping against the smooth screen. Stubborn, her phone stays silent and she sighs, closing her eyes.
In her dreams, Jake is eating her—skin, bone and marrow. Bright blood smears the corners of his mouth and she wakes with a start, heart hammering as she stares into the dark.
And this might also be a dream, but later Jessa taps on the window until Amelie stumbles out of bed to let her inside. They fall asleep together, Amelie holding Jessa close enough to feel the bones beneath her clothes.
When she wakes, her stomach aches.
About the Author: Ashton Noone writes short fiction from Calgary, Alberta. Ashton's work has been a finalist in the In Places Between: The Robyn Herrington Memorial Short Story Contest and has appeared in the Aurora Award-nominated anthology Enigma Front: The Monster Within.
“Rufous is back!” Blanche shouts.
Henry falters from a doze in his electronic push-up chair.
Blanche grabs for a tattered dish towel and marches toward the deck on a mission, only to be met by an obstacle! The screen door is completely broken.
Her wrinkled face squishes into a grimace. Blanche knows, only too well, that her neighbor, Sally Collins, will be happy to help on the next check-in. Sally cheerfully drops by every morning, with a cup-of-tea excuse, but Blanche is certain it’s to make sure that she and Henry survived the night. Sally’s been here already this morning. She won’t be back until tomorrow. Blanche will figure out how to fix the screen door on her own before then.
Sally is the same age as Blanche—eighty—but looks rosy in her pastel “jogging” outfits, and she moves with a bouncy step since taking up tap dancing at the Trumbull Grange Hall.
Blanche jiggles the screen door, tips it to the side, and wiggles it the other way. She shoves and thump-thump-thumps it open. If she doesn’t hop-to, tannish brown Rufous, like a schoolyard bully, will chase the more cooperative red and green Broad-tails away. A nine-inch space between the screen door and its frame allows Blanche to slip through. Her body, in gray sweatshirt and baggy trousers, has shrunk to five feet, two inches from her earlier five feet, five inches. Never a heavy woman, Blanche weighs a mere ninety pounds.
Charging onto the deck, she waves the dish towel like a flag that has seen too many battles. Blanche doesn’t want to hurt Rufous, but something has to be done. He can’t run roughshod over the others. If she could only get a little closer. Taunting her, he circles behind the feeder. When she had her full height, Blanche could have easily reached him.
She doesn’t depart, so Rufous jets off to loiter in a nearby ponderosa pine while the other hummingbirds gather to take fast sips from ten red plastic, blossom-shaped dispensers. They give each other turns the way Blanche wants them to do.
She used to teach fifth graders, and often said, “They’re agreeable. Different from those sixth graders with their big ideas.”
Fifteen years ago, Henry, upon his retirement, came up with his moving-to-the-cabin-permanently idea. Blanche felt a painful clutch to the chest as if her heart had been stabbed. The thought of leaving her school, where she had been employed since their boys went off to college, caused a throbbing, like her lifeblood pumping out.
Eventually, she got over the loss and started volunteer work. She also quit thinking of the old white colonial in Denver as “my home,” which is a good thing because their youngest son, Andrew, and his wife, both artists, bought the house. Recently, they painted it chartreuse with burgundy trim.
With a huff of irritation, her thoughts return to Sally Collins and her meddling ways.
Sally is also a permanent resident on the river. She and Ralph and her three pampered felines moved in year-round shortly after Henry and Blanche Robinson took up permanent residence.
At the time, Henry said, “This is just grand. Chums right here in the wilderness. We don’t have to drive down the mountain for a party.”
At the time, Blanche felt grateful to have an old friend nearby.
As soon as she turns her back and heads for the front room of the cabin, Rufous, like a fighter pilot, dive-bombs the Broad-tails. Blanche does an about-face. If it’s necessary to stand here until the little ones get their fair share, that’s exactly what she will do. For another ten minutes she waits, dish towel stretched tightly between her two hands, teeth clenched, causing her prominent chin to jut out.
At last, the satiated Broad-tails fly off to hide in low-hanging branches, and she finally feels free to leave her post. It’s time for Rufous to have all he wants. There’s plenty more. Blanche makes a new batch of boiled water and sugar every day. She requires a good supply because bats raid the feeder at night. If some sleep wasn’t necessary, she’d stay up with a flashlight to scare them off.
“Did you get rid of him?” Henry rasps, leaning forward on his chair when Blanche returns. He can barely see the hummers due to macular degeneration, which has left him legally blind, yet claims that he senses their whirring motion and hears their metallic whistling sound.
“I sure did,” Blanche says. “Kept him away until the others got enough.”
Henry has taken to slumping on his walker near the deck railing, letting the more sociable of the hummers, never Rufous, land on an outstretched finger. Grinning, he says the beating wings tickle. Observing this, Blanche finds it impossible to believe that he used to perform several delicate surgeries each month. Christopher, their eldest son, has taken over the practice, with his wife as part-time bookkeeper—a position Blanche held through their boys’ growing-up years.
“How ’bout me?” Henry whines. “Time to fill me up?”
“Sandwiches’ll be ready as fast as I can assemble them.”
“A bit of wine’d be nice.”
“You always say that.”
“Well, it would. Some of the peppery red that Ralph used to like,” he coaxes.
Sally’s husband always said, “Wine is good for us.” He’s been gone over a year. Cancer. Blanche is sure that if he hadn’t indulged in all the scotch, as well as all the wine, he’d still be with them.
She takes a small glass shaped like a turned-up bell and pours barely a thimbleful of cabernet into it.
“Dr. Johnston tells me this is beneficial. Takes away the aches and helps me sleep,” Henry informs her for at least the hundredth time.
“What does he know? Burt Johnston doesn’t look old enough to be a doctor,” Blanche retorts for at least the hundredth time. “If you hadn’t been drinking so much wine all these years, you’d have your vision, of that I’m absolutely convinced.” And your sharp mind. Blanche forges toward the kitchen. “Besides, you sleep more than enough with those long naps.”
While standing next to the counter nibbling at her own lunch, she cuts Henry’s tuna fish sandwich in triangles and places them on a plate from the old house. It belonged to her mother and has a rose pattern. When he could see, Henry liked these dishes. Alongside the sandwich, she arranges sliced Gala apple in a pinwheel. Next, Blanche waves her hand over the plate as if giving his food a blessing and carries it to a foldable tray alongside his “magic” chair.
After she sets down the meal and tucks a napkin into Henry’s collar, he says, “More, please?” Two wobbly hands lift the wineglass under Blanche’s nose, Oliver Twist-like.
“Just one additional, very small serving,” she says, and after it’s poured, “I don’t want you tripping in the bedroom when you go for your rest.”
Blanche hears Henry’s sigh, but chooses to ignore it. Several months ago, he fell at bedtime. Stark-naked and about to wriggle into his pajama bottoms, he tipped over. She couldn’t hoist him onto the bed. He insisted that she help dress him before calling Sally, so she rolled and boosted and tugged until he said, “I’m properly covered.” Upon arrival, Sally aided Blanche in lifting Henry off the floor and tucking him under his blankets.
She stayed for at least an hour. “To make sure everything’s okay.”
That’s when Blanche first imagined Sally acting as their monitor. Tick-tick-tick.
“Why don’t I get a little wine to relax you?” Sally had said, in an annoying, artificially calming voice that she’s taken to using all the time.
“I don’t need to relax. I’ll make some tea.”
“Tea would be nice. Remember tea we used to drink at The Cozy Café?”
“I most certainly do, as well as the work on your campaigns.” And so started one of their many stories. Blanche helped Sally win every high school class office she ever ran for, with useful improvement ideas and colorful, eye-catching posters: Vote for Sal—She’s Your Gal!!! They lost touch with each other until, after Blanche’s years of supporting Henry through medical training, when he finally joined an established practice, they became reacquainted. Sally was the wife of another junior partner in the cardiology group.
She would say, “It’s so remarkable that Ralph and Henry came to the same office. We were able to resume our friendship.”
Blanche also used to think of it as remarkable.
On the night Henry fell, when Sally ran out of memories, she started on the Robinsons’ general well-being. “If he breaks something, I’m afraid you’ll have to move back to the city.”
This prospect would have pleased Blanche no end earlier, but she’s grown to love living in the mountains. Early on, she visited a nursing home in Woodland Park three times a week, bringing wholesome snacks like homemade granola bars and vegetable juices whipped up in her blender. These offerings were not always appreciated. Still, Blanche said things like, “It’s your responsibility to stay as healthy as possible,” and felt pleased with their cooperation. Lately, she’s had more than enough to do keeping Henry in working order, and stopped going to this nursing home. The past two summers since his deterioration, she has worried that it’ll be the last season to feed the hummingbirds and protect the Broad-tails against Rufous. What will they do when she’s not around? Will the poor things be ill-prepared for their long flight? Will they starve?
That wretched night of Henry’s fall, Sally eventually took her lantern and left for the short walk back to her cabin. That was when she first said, “Call any time you need me,” and the next morning her drop-in checks began.
Blanche vowed to never need Sally again, and she’s been successful until the blasted screen door broke.
However, it’s going to have to wait a bit. After Henry is prepared for his nap, Blanche tromps to the bathroom. She’s been working on a huge project—re-pasting wine labels stuck to the walls over forty years before, back in the days when she enjoyed the revelry. Back when she liked the buttery taste of chardonnay. These labels stayed perfectly fine until the past few months when all of them started to peel off at once. Her plan for the day was to finish this task.
A hint of a smile crosses her face as she recalls Henry’s oft-heard remark, when he could see: “This beats fussy wallpaper or boring old paint. Every one of these labels has a story and represents a fantastic time. Better than reading a magazine when you’re sitting for a long while.”
They hosted work parties with friends that first year the cabin was built, each person taking turns with the pasting. The bathroom walls are covered with labels of every wine variety: chardonnay, rosé, zinfandel, a Zeller Schwarze Katz—this one mounted by Sally. Henry had leaned close and peered at the black cat, with back arched and paws outstretched. He said in a teasing voice, “It looks like you, Sal.”
That day, Blanche said, “Oh, Henry, it does not!”
Sally comments on this label whenever she uses their bathroom. If it wasn’t her grandchildren’s favorite, Blanche would rip it off the wall and throw it in the trash. Instead, she squeezes her lips together and swallows to get rid of the memory of chardonnay in her mouth.
She puts her stepladder in place and starts to work. In her normal rushing fashion, she drills through the designated task and completes her goal. She neatly places supplies under the sink, stands back, and admires her efforts.
Suddenly, her still-sharp ears pick up rustling noises. Rufous again! She considers the stuck screen door and decides to push it onto the deck in order to get her ladder through, thinking that after defending the Broad-tails, she’ll fix it. Blanche fetches a broom in order to really give Rufous what-for! Several Broad-tails cluster in the pines like spectators to a bloody confrontation.
She places the ladder close to the railing, tests for stability, and climbs a couple steps. She reaches with the broom to give Rufous a good whack, but he zigzags away from the bristles. Landing on the feeder’s far side, he commences to gulp belligerently. She nudges the feeder’s bottom with her broom, and he zooms away. Blanche climbs up another step to the top of her ladder. Here she can hold him off. She swishes through the air several times, pauses, and sniffs at sun-warmed pine needles spread over the deck. This mess will have to be swept away as soon as she’s fixed that door. The Broad-tails flit tentatively past the feeder and spread their tails like fans, seeming to say, “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” Blanche answers. Poised as straight as a sentry, she glares at Rufous until he backs down and disappears. Most of the Broad-tails zero in on plastic blossoms. A few vibrate nearby as if awaiting orders. Gradually they join the group.
Once her duty is completed, Blanche prepares to leave. It’s time to get Henry up so he doesn’t sleep the rest of the day away. And once that’s done, she’ll fix the door. She moves each foot down once, twice, and on the final step catches a toe. The broom drops with a clatter. She circles her scrawny arms backward, round and round, loses her balance, and tumbles from the ladder. At the last moment, Blanche turns her head to look into the cabin, catching a glimpse of Henry’s gnarly, bare foot peeking out from under the covers. Then, she crashes onto the deck and smashes her temple against the metal frame of the waiting screen door.
A puddle of blood, as dark as red wine, pools around her cheek. She lies there, eyes scrunched shut, hands uncharacteristically quiet.
* * *
That’s how Sally Collins finds her in the early evening. An ominous feeling caused Sally to come by for another check on the elderly couple. Blood has dried a dark rust color, and Blanche’s face is grayish white. Sally touches her neck. No pulse. After a startled few seconds, she considers moving Blanche into the cabin, or at least looking for something to cover her. Sally concludes that neither action will make her any better off than resting in the open on a bed of fragrant pine needles.
“Blanche…Blanche… Where are you?”
Sally barely hears Henry’s voice. She raises her own. “It’s me. Sally. I’ll be right in.” She looks at the fallen screen door and wonders when it broke. Sally scoots it aside with a hard nudge of her toe so that she can enter the cabin. With this action her head whirls as Blanche’s head tips back and forth and clunks to the deck.
Sally takes a deep breath and goes to help Henry out of bed. Once he’s sitting up, she gently guides his bare feet to the floor and into fuzzy slippers. She places an arm under his arm. The other hand presses his chest for balance.
Henry pushes his walker into the opening where the screen door used to be. Blanche lies inches from his fuzzy foot.
“You must stay inside,” Sally tells him. “It’s cold out here with the sun setting.”
“There’s been an accident. I’m so sorry.” Sally puts her arm around Henry’s frail shoulders, guiding him and the walker to his special chair. In the bedroom, she finds a quilt to wrap around him.
Henry shivers uncontrollably as if his chair vibrates. Through chattering teeth he says, “What kind of accident?”
Sally explains that Blanche fell off a ladder onto the deck, hit her head, and she’s gone.
He looks blank, as if shell-shocked. It takes a while for the accident to register. With his head slowly shaking, he says, “How could this happen? She’s such a trooper.”
“That she was,” Sally agrees.
And, after a few more minutes, Henry murmurs, “Blanche always kept humming along.”
Sally uncovers a dusty bottle of scotch. It’s her deceased husband’s Chivas Regal, hidden in the back of Blanche’s first-aid cupboard. She pours a healthy dose in a tumbler for Henry, to warm him and settle his nerves. Now, she calls the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department. They tell Sally that before long someone will arrive to take her best friend away.
Turning to Blanche’s mostly unused chair, beside Henry, Sally sits down with her own scotch in a bell-shaped glass. She watches the tiny birds at their feeder. They all depart, except the biggest one. He’s such a pretty coppery gold color.
Rufous sticks around for a long time, taking an extra-big drink.