An awkward silence lays awake between the warm sheets. Joseph wrapped his arms around Millie’s waist pulling her closer. “Don’t worry it happens to every man once in a while.” Millie is answered by a soft volley of snores.
“I love you so much. That’s what’s important,” Millie said as Joseph pretended to sleep.
“No, I’m fine. I just like being held,” Millie said to Joseph’s back.
“Don’t worry, you’re just over tired,” Millie said.
“I said, I am fine!”
“Umm, maybe you should like, talk to someone.”
“Wait, I didn’t even get my clothes off.”
“Maybe we should go talk to someone.”
“Is that it? No, I meant that was great, really. I have to get to work early tomorrow anyways.”
“It’s not you. It’s me. I need some space.” Space away from you, she thought. Shocked Joseph reached across the café table to hold her hand. Suddenly Millie grabbed her coffee mug and became fascinated by the scene outside the restaurant’s window. Joseph studied the turn of head, the set of her shoulder. He gestured for the waiter to bring the check.
“Thank you for inviting us to the party. The gingerbread was excellent. Next week the potluck is at our place,” Cassidy shouted across the driveway to Patsy, her next door neighbor. She dragged the trash can down to the curb. Wrapping her polka dotted robe tighter around her doughy middle, she waved to Mr. Miller walking his geriatric Peaches across the sun-drenched cul de sac. Cassie fetched the newspaper from the dew damp lawn and headed back inside.
Cassie scrambled eggs while she packed her husband’s lunch. Josh kissed her on the cheek before heading to the plant. She never looked up from the sink. Cassie loaded the dishwasher, started a load in the washer, and headed into her real life.
Her office was in Trevor’s old room. His Fast and Furious posters had been replaced with a pretty pink paint and a floral wallpaper accent wall. There were shelves of scrapbooking supplies and a new Cricut machine set up under the bright frilly window, but the real magic was the monitor and desktop. Cassie drew the blinds. She pressed the glowering red button. She sat her sweet tea on her Grumpy Cat coaster and waded into the electronic blue.
First her favorite online gaming site to place a few bets and see who was lurking in the corners. Cassie was gone. LuckyLeggs7 lost $300, flirted with some old pals, got invited to a late night poker game, and made promises she never intended to keep.
Next was the ‘gram to track her favorite stories and connect with her high school besties. HollistownHottie talked about who was hot and who was not. She had been stalking Bree, Trevor’s ex, teasing Bree about her size, her failed attempt at college, her nowhere job. Bree hadn’t logged on in a few days. Hottie was relentless. Condensation ran down her glass as she tapped furiously at her keyboard. Hottie scouted the internet and then sent a handful of inappropriate emails about the girl to Bree’s boss and Bree’s aunt in Wisconsin. Laughing, Cassie picked up her glass and drank it down.
Finally there were the chat rooms. Cassie rubbed her hands together. PrettyDangerous96 was provocative and like to push boundaries. Pretty was naïve and innocent. She had a folder of pictures of herself from 30 years before and carefully cropped nude photos from adult sites. PrettyDangerous96 was feisty and fun. Pretty was whatever she needed to be to be the center of attention. She flitted from chat to chat until AmericanSun logged on and begged her to answer his calls. Pretty purred and licked her lips.
“Honey?” The sound of Josh’s keys hitting the hall table wrenched Cassie away from the blue. She shut down. Arms open, Cassie ran to Josh. Her husband of thirty years was in kitchen with the mail in one hand and the other on the cold oven.
“Will dinner be late?”
Cassie leaped into his arms with a kiss. Josh held her wondering how did he get so lucky. The letters scattered across the linoleum.
Building Delta 34, Room: Sub-Basement 17 A, Location: Classified
Time: 9:58 am
Dr. A. Hartford: Transcript begin. Well it was mighty nice of you to show up on time.
Dr. R. Spader: Screw you, it’s a holiday weekend. I should be up to my neck in annoying uncles and roast turkey. What’s the big deal?
Dr. V. Carreaux: You didn’t review the prelims.
Spader: Look, princess, some of us have lives.
Carreaux: And some of us had to work to get here you son of—
Time 10:11 am
Carreaux: The subject is a Caucasian male, approximately 17 years of age, healthy but malnourished with a history of Tourette’s Syndrome, diagnosed at age 11, treated with clonidine and topiramate then ketamine and transcranial direct current stimulation—
Spader: What in the actual [deleted] there is off-label and there is off the freakin’ trolley that is no treatment for tics.
Hartford: Well as you know Dick the boy has more than tics. He’s psychic. He involuntarily utters phrases, clairvoyant phrases.
Hartford: if you bother to read my notes. I was there when they bought him in from [redacted]. He knew my whole life.
Spader: Will someone get me the Amazing Randi this [deleted] is crazy.
Carreaux: Boys, I’m tired and the Amazing Randi is dead. Let’s properly examine the patient before jumping to conclusions. This could be a clever hoax or the cover of Time magazine.
[Patient X enters]
Patient X: I’m sorry, Dr. Hartford. I was so tired this late night. It’s worse when I’m sleepy. I didn’t know that was your cousin at first.
Hartford: Stop, just stop talking. It’s fine.
X: It’s not fffine. Shut up, shut your mouth no one needs to knnnow about Carrie and me.
[Hartford exits Room 17 A]
X: I didn’t mean to embarrass him. He is a nice person and so lonely. He was so excited about me.
Carreaux: I understand. You don’t want to hurt anyone. Would you like a treat? The food here is on the bland side. Here take it. It is still sealed. I brought it from home.
X: Thank you. Strawberry I think I like strawberry. I remember liking red flavor KoolAid with my mom.
Carreaux: Tell me more about your mom. What else do you remember doing with her?
X: I can’t say. I’ve lost details. All my personal memories are soft and mushy like dreams, you know. FFFake what a [deleted] fake. I should go ddddig up the Amazing Randi to get a load of this guy. Fake! I’m sorry miss. I didn’t mean to curse in front of a lady. LLady love.
Carreaux: it’s all right. You almost sound like Dr. Spader for a minute there. Don’t apologize. Can you tell me how you got that black eye?
X: I got picked trying to score some Special K. Crowded holding cells are not the best place to be telling secrets.
Spader: Ha! Read my mind. Because I know you’re a
Spader: Vivienne this is what you call a cold reading. It was popular during the medium craze and phony fortune tellers still do it. Someone who is skilled at reading cues and making guesses
X: Hou-Houdini! Mommy got me a book on Houdini. I learnt magic tricks to make her smile in the hospital. She said she would nnnever leave me! Pick any card Viv. I’m afraid all the time. Don’t leave me
Carreaux: Richard no don’t
Spader: let go of me, Viv.
X: Richard I can’t let you go. I want you even though you don’t see me. I never tttold anyone.
Carreaux: [redacted] why does your voice sound like mine?
X: [redacted] why does your voice sound like mine? Must regain control. Now tell me your first memory? Why do you think it is important?
[Spader and Carreaux exit.]
X: Patient refuses to answer direct questions. Diagnosis possible schizophrenia.
[cc: Maj. General S. Treff, Director of Parapsychology, U.S. Army Office]
Golden leaves danced across the blacktop. April hurried from her car and up to the schoolhouse door. She willed her heart to beat more slowly and then rang the office bell. Under the shadow of Saint Catherine of the Breaking Wheel, April waited to be buzzed in. Buzz! April walked to the tall front desk where a very old nun sat.
“I’m so sorry to be late the traffic—“
“Oliver’s mom, they are waiting for you in the conference room,” Sister Bernard said, with cherubic pink cheeks and dead serious eyes. The nun gestured in no particular direction with a paper thin hand. April looked perplexed. So not the vice principal’s office this time. Is that good is that worse and where in the hell was the conference room? April waited and then turned. Sister Thomas the principal was standing behind her. April jumped.
“Right this way Mrs. Grayson.”
April followed the nun quietly suddenly a schoolgirl in a plaid uniform being sent to detention. But that’s just it I never had detention I never got so much as a B. After Sister Thomas, April stepped into the school’s conference. A too large walnut conference table was squeezed into what once may have been a storage room. Sister Thomas sat down between Mrs. MacGillicuddy, Tessa’s second grade teacher, and Ms. Wicke, the school psychologist. April pushed the image of the three headed hydra out of her head and sat down opposite.
“I’m so sorry to be late the traffic…” April’s voice slipped away as she made meaningless conciliatory hand gestures.
“A grave matter has come to our attention,” said Sister Thomas.
Mrs. MacGillicuddy slid an open religion textbook towards April. There was a childlike drawing of a naked and familiar man peeing in the shower. April slapped a hand to her forehead.
“This was found in Tessa’s religion book and she claims it was drawn by her brother Oliver. We questioned Oliver and he confessed that it was a picture of his daddy in the shower. Mrs. MacGillicuddy reached over and turned the page. Here was another familiar naked man drawing peeing and tossing dollar bills.
“And this is a picture of his daddy at the bank.”
April clapped her hands over her mouth. I am going to kill that boy.
“And this Saint Joseph.” April massaged her temples. Well at least Saint Joseph had on pants but he also had a devil horns, a tail, and a pitchfork.
“Is this what you family thinks of religion!” Said Mrs. MacGillicuddy.
What do you think we are nudist exhibitionist devil worshippers. “No of course not. We’re Methodists.” April searched the hydra for a glimmer of sympathy but all she got was Ms. Wicke looking uncomfortable.
“Oliver is in the third grade. He told me had drawn silly pictures in his little sister’s book to get back at her because she ate all of his Advent chocolates. I think he thought this was an old textbook.”
“Well we respect school property at Saint Catherine,” Mrs. MacGillicuddy huffed.
“There have been other issues with Oliver regarding behavior and grades,” Sister Thomas said.
“Sister Jerome told me he really tries in her small reading group.”
“We know you work outside the home. Do the children go home to an empty house?” Sister Thomas asked.
“No.” What the hell.
“Is their father in the picture?” Mrs. MacGillicuddy asked.
“Of course, you’ve met him at Back to School Night tall guy with a beard. What are trying to say,” April demanded. Ms. Wicke looked down at the checkerboard linoleum as if to find a crack to melt into.
“We are merely looking for answers to better understand Oliver,” Sister Thomas said.
My child is not a problem in need of a solution. He is a child. A good boy with a learning disability, excellent drawing skills, and a wicked sense of humor. April simmered.
“Some parents have wondered why a boy like this is still at Saint Catherine. We have a culture here—“
“Wait are you talking about my kid with other parents?” Shit I said that out loud. April stopped , reversed and switched her code switching skills up to the highest gear. There is a price other than money parents pay to get and keep their children in good schools. Her parents paid it and now it was her turn.
“We have a culture here, a high standard, a Saint Catherine of the Breaking Wheel’s way. It has been challenging I know for the new students from Saint Martin de Porres to become part of our community,” Sister Thomas finished. She folded her hands and tilted her head in a pose of deepest concern.
“Yes, we appreciate your concern. Oliver’s father and I are also concerned and we are looking at additional resources to support our son. We will work on Oliver.” April closed the religion book. Tears burned the back of her eyes.
Suddenly, April was outside the school, holding a folder of half finished school assignments. The wind slapped at her face. Ms. Wicke stepped outside.
“You have to ask yourself is this school the best place for Oliver,” Ms. Wicke said in a hushed tone before walking quickly to her car. The stature of Saint Catherine stood over the entrance, one arm outstretched holding a sharp spiked wheel, the instrument of her torture. Weighed down, April walked to her own car.
Pet waved bye bye to her old man. He waved back and turned quickly to pretend blow his nose. Pet knew he was crying. Old people are sentimental. Youngsters were more practical. Pet looked up at the weak sun and pretend wiped sweat from her brow. She steered her boat towards the sun.
She sailed until the winds died down. Then she flipped on the solars, cranked the craft’s tiny motor, and sped on. All the while Pet scanned the water’s surface like her old man had taught her. Some fishers always sped across the deep without looking every which way. That’s why SweetCheeks and Little’s boat got damaged by rooftops last time. They limped back to Little Sheep Lake bailing water with no food to show for their troubles. That’s why Love didn’t come back home at all.
But her old man taught her to look forward and never back. He taught her those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. He taught her to measure twice and cut once. He taught her wherever you go there you are. Pet didn’t understand her old man all the time but she believed in him. Pet believed in the old man’s belief in happy endings. The twins MyPrecious and MyHeart said her old man had the oldtimers when he talked about big fur animals and fields of plants and all the foods we used to have. They said her old man should swim away to save precious resources. Pet shook the twins from her mind and weaved her boat down flooded streets. The waters were low this dry season.
Everyone who could work worked in Little Sheep. From the littlest to the oldest, everyone worked, farming mushrooms, drying moss for fuel, purifying the water, reusing what scraps of tech remained from the Before Times. Everyone worked so hard to just live that the people had no time for stories. No one made time to listen except for Pet. Pet adopted the man after they had both lost their families during the Rona outbreak ’86. She soaked up every story and peppered her old man with questions. Her mind held a library of stories of the way the world used to be. He had told her about Sleepless in Seattle and Friends, Good Times and Whose the Boss.
Pet docked against the remains of a lamp post. With sun and wind she had travelled for three days until she had reached dry land. The air shimmered from the moisture rising from the loamy soil. The land had only been here for a few months and would surrender back to the water in a few weeks. The world was an ocean with tides and mountain tops were islands.
While Little Sheep Lake (the old people still call her town a lake when most of the rest of the world was underwater most of the time) had mushrooms and lichen and moss there was a need for more vitamins. During the dry season the fishers searched the wet husk of the outside world for canned goods and green plants. Pet walked quietly and carefully always scanning. A stitch in time saves nine meant don’t fall and break an ankle. She had salvaged some plastic pots and bottles and plenty of wire but no food. Thunder broke like a gunshot. She ducked for cover under the archway of the remains of a brick apartment building. By the fisher marks this building had already been searched and searched. A storm now could mean death. Rain fell hard. Pet hummed the theme to The Flintstones to calm herself. The old man taught her fear is the mind killer.
In the near distance something white waved. It was a tarp. Tarps are always useful. Once the rain slowed Pet ran through the raindrops to the tarp. She traced the red letters on the white background: Walla Walla Downtown Farmers’ Market. Pet cut the nylon rope holding the plastic sign. Her eyes caught a green striped ball. Pet pulled. It was stuck to the moist warm soil. Pet’s knees buckled. She sank to the earth and stared in wonder. The old man had told her of this, of biting its pink flesh or spitting out it black seeds.
Carefully Pet dug into the soil and extracted the plant and its roots. She found dandelions and shoots of onions and wild garlic. With triumphant orange flowers, a pumpkin vine had swaddled a rusted mailbox.
Pet scanned the deep with the sun warm on her back. Laden with produce, her boat was low in the water but steady. She skirted around a church steeple and sang out the theme to Gilligan’s Island. Pet couldn’t wait to tell her old man her story.
The fog rolled onto the beach. The whine of leaf blowers echoed as maintenance men cleared away dust and dried leaves from the boardwalk. An army of cleaning crews made beds and vacuumed rugs in motels and beach houses along the shore. The tiny shore town was preparing for the season. Weak beams of sunlight trickled into the windows of the town’s market.
Roxanne groaned lifting a tray of wheat breads.
“I think I tore my hamstrings.”
“You don’t have hamstrings,” Sherri told her, carrying three trays of English muffins. “You don’t have nothing.”
“No I’m serious. Can you pull a hamstring? I think I pulled wait where are the hamstrings?” Roxanne walked in circles to show Sherri her sore leg. Sherri started unloading bags of buns.
“Look alive ladies, pick up the pace,” Mr. Martindale said hurrying back to his office to track down his missing magazine shipment and knock a few heads at the distribution center.
Bobby Lee scooted around him on the mini forklift with pallets of produce. The damp played hell with her arthritis. She rubbed her knee with one hand while executing a perfect turn past the meats with the other.
“Hey, Miss Bobby ruin a holiday in four words,” Sasha called behind from the deli counter.
Heading towards produce Bobby Lee yelled back, “Plant based turkey breast!”
Laughter rippled across the canned foods as staff circulated the inventory.
After eighteen months of shuttered doors and dark stores the season was coming. Soon the parking lots would be full of license plates from New York or Pennsylvania. Soon there will be long lines and unbearable traffic. This town, like many others, will swell with cotton candy, hot buttered corn on sticks and other people’s memory making.
AJ rollerskated from canned goods to the back of store and puts his CD from home into the store’s ancient sound system. “The Electric Slide” booms across the store. Dancing breaks out in the aisles. The sun stood higher in the sky and the sands warmed. Thick lines of sea gulls perched on stores and houses in anticipation. Mr. Martindale returned from the back of store to show off his funky dance moves. The fog rolled away from the beach.
The steel needle drove through the black fabric. She made tiny neat stitches in the knee of her youngest’s treasured must be worn tomorrow sweatpants. She admired her repair and packed away her sun-faded sewing box. It was ten minutes after her bedtime, forty minutes past when she had promised to wind down. She stretched her back on the floor and finished folding laundry.
Next she emptied the dishwasher of the clean and loaded the dishwasher with the dirty. She wiped down the stove and countertops. She closed all of the flung open kitchen cabinets with frustrated taps. She fished for socks lost under the sofa and dirty tees abandoned on the backs of chairs. She started a load a laundry and carried up a warm basket of fresh laundry from the cold basement. She folded another load. Finally finished for the day, her love hung in the air of the sleep quiet home like smoke.
The overstuffed laundry basket hangs low against her hip as she headed upstairs at last. It is some time after midnight. She does the terrible arithmetic of what time it is now against what time she has to get up. She climbed into bed but not into sleep. Surrounded by a sleeping world her mind awakens. She could draw or paint or knit or buy a Fiestaware teapot from North Dakota or find out what her favorite childhood TV stars look like now. Mentally she swipes through the kaleidoscope of diversions. The teetering stack of books on her bedside table gives her a flirtatious wink.
She knows the Japanese word for a pile of books awaiting to be read is tsundoku. Her fingers trailed down the spines. She knows the Chinese word for bedtime revenge is baofuxing aoye, the term describes workers who have to work long hours will stay up late. As she turns the page on a book on global warming or a book on fabric inspiration for mixed media or finally finds out if Lawrence Todhunter got away with murder, she snuggled into that sweet pocket of time that is hers and hers alone and wonders if there is a word for this.
The kitchen air was heavy with singed hair and hot grease. Betts pulled the smoking metal comb through the thick coils hair. Marty winced from the heat. Betts lay the hot comb in its oven and blew on the girl’s skin.
“You can let go now, baby girl.” Betts let the child stretch while she took a puff from her cigarette. “What grade are you in now? High school? Starting college?”
Marty laughed. “You know I’m in the third grade Miss Elizabeth. But I am very smart.I’m the fast reader in my whole class.” Marty did a little shimmy on the kitchen stool. Her head half Afro puffs, half straighten swayed from side to side.
“I know that’s right.” Betts went back to work. “I’ve known you before you were you.” Betts added the curling iron to the stove to heat. Betts and Alberta, Marty’s mother, had grown up together. They had shared a crib, played with dollies, and later gone on double dates. She rubbed Pink Lustre through Marty’s natural curls from scalp to ends. Her hot comb moved through the child’s hair. From a daub of AfroSheen on the back of her hand, Betts rubbed the grease into the girl’s edges and started to curl. Alberta had married young and then came Marty. Betts had chairs at two salons and did heads at home. The old friends couldn’t see each other much.
Marty’s head was a mass of shiny uniform curls. Marty raised up her head as Betts showered her in a fragrant cloud of hair spray. Holding Marty’s face in her hands, Betts could see Alberta in the schoolyard.
”What side do you want your part?”
“Hold this around your neck tight.”
Marty draped the the splotched towel around her thin shoulders. Betts laved Vaseline around her edges.
“Thank you again for doing this, Miss Elizabeth. You are a true lifesaver,” Marty said. “I can’t believe how long it took to get my old cornrows out and then when Michaela never showed up with the extensions I was panicked.”
Betts took a long drag of her Marlboro and stirred the relaxer. The bite of the lye made their eyes water. With a wide toothed comb, Betts parted Marty’s fluffy Afro into eight sections.
“Girl, stop. We’re family. You have a ton of new growth and your scalp might burn. Let me know when it starts to tingle, okay,” Betts said. She worked the Dark ‘n’ Lovely through Marty’s hair, pulling and smoothing. From the tightness in Marty’s shoulders Betts could tell her scalp was beginning to burn.
“You know you are the only one who still calls me Miss Elizabeth. You do know you’re grown right.” Marty laughed.”I know. Mom laughs at me but it just doesn’t feel right.”
Betts was quiet and suddenly feeling her age. She patted Marty’s arms and guided her to the kitchen sink. In the cool water the red brown coils melted into silky waves.
“I know this water feels good.”
“Look at you.” Betts opened her arms wide.
The years had changed them both. With a crown of silver and auburn locks, Marty had grown older and more beautiful. Betts’s bones felt frail in Marty’s strong embrace. In her arms, Betts could feel Marty shake from tears. She rubbed the woman’s girl’s baby’s back to comfort her. They held each other for a long moment. Then Betts held Marty’s face in her hands to say goodbye and I will see you again to old friend in her heart.
“It was so kind of you to come, Miss Elizabeth.”
Betts wiped Marty’s tears and headed back down the aisle.
My mouth tastes of iron. My head aches. My eyes open slowly and the world is a blur. My face is wet. I wipe my mouth and stare at the bright red blood on my fingers. I smell gas and burnt rubber. I close my eyes and rest my head. I remember this morning. Bailey and I argued about what. A wave of nausea rises in my stomach. We fought over that bird. A crow, no two crows had built a nest in the massive half dead black walnut by our garage.
Every morning the male crow screamed at me when I left for work and every evening he screamed at me when I came home. First Bailey joked about the bird having a crush on me and he started quoting The Raven. Next when I told him I was afraid he tried to tell me about this nature documentary he’d watched that said crows were as smart as dogs and cats and could recognize faces and hold grudges.
This week the crow had taken to waiting for me to get out of my car and dive bombing my face. I had to run and cover my face. Last night the crow hit the back of my head and I fell in the driveway. I tore my tights and spilt Candace’s gift bag on the ground. This morning I told Bailey to be a man and do something about the goddamned bird and he told maybe if I didn’t drink so much I wouldn’t fall so often. I told him if he had a real job I wouldn’t want to drink. That was the beginning all the unsaid things being said. All of our hurts and fears raged out. I threw his jug, the big one, the one he had made for me on the floor. Before the pieces shattered I wanted to gather them all up and hold that jug tight and take back all the things. Bailey grabbed my arms to shake me. I felt myself lifted up . Then Bailey looked at my face, looked at his own hands, and walked away.
Wait that wasn’t this morning it was yesterday morning. Bailey packed an overnight bag and left yesterday morning. I went to my first showing with puffy eyes. This morning I woke up on the living room with an empty bottle of wine and half of our jug glued together. Bailey never came home, never called. I remember the Jensen property and my morning appointment with the Patels. Sam was going to have my ass if I was late again. I remember splashing water on my face and getting dressed at breakneck speed. I remember having a screwdriver eye opener and dashing for my car. I remember the crow. Squat and iridescent black, he landed on my hood. I honked. He cawed. I revved the engine and it walked back and forth with deliberate steps. I screamed and he slammed his beak into my windshield. I could see myself in his mirror black eyes. Hatred flowed between us. I accelerated forward and he flew up to his nest and mate and I reversed and he returned to my hood. I remember now we did this seven times. My eyes fly open. I am in my car in front of my house. The crow had landed at the end of my driveway. He had walked back and forth slowly. I had thrown my car into reverse and floored it. I had crashed into Mrs. Hall’s pickup backing out of her driveway across the street. Oh my god oh my god, I need to help her.
The sound of sirens fill the air as I open my car door. I look up. From his black walnut branch, the crow crooks his head, looks down, and caws.