Writer Round-Up: A Collective Interview Wherein Writers We Like Discuss Topics Related to the Craft 42 Miles Press Authors : Allan Peterson, Carrie Oeding, Bill Rasmovicz, and Erica Bernheim Interview by Cynthia Reeser For Prick of the Spindle, Vol. 7.1, March 2013 ~ In this […]
Month: March 2013
By Stephanie Renae Johnson For Prick of the Spindle, Vol. 7.1, March 2013 I discovered Laura Hope Gill through a good friend—and then, organically, I felt like I knew her. Gifted with delicate and intricate verse but simple words, the poetess weaves small glimpses and […]
Drama, Vol. 7.1, March 2013
Scene: Inside an aisle found everywhere, in supermarkets and that gas station with overpriced cereal, the Customer approaches an array of writing weapons and waits for her eyes to settle on something familiar. The Armory Attendant, a commercial collection of voices rising from the packages, tells her how to think.
Armory Attendant: Here in the Temple of the Written Word, we provide you with the essentials of inked communication, your tools for worshipping the Almighty Language, the Shaper of thought and perception of time, Lord of Names, Author of Authors.
These are the handheld Creators of the Definitions of the world.
Customer: I hate pencils. They snap at ends like paper itself. What good is it for paper to be broken like that, to be scratched, to be colored, chalked, grated like cheese. I hate this; that pencils seem to remind me of crumbling bones. Temporary, granulate charcoal scraped on the page, not like the crisp, the entirely visible, the bloody loops of pens.
Armory Attendant: We offer only the most elegant instruments here. It is our tradition to provide classic, timeless pens, refined over ages of design. These are from our elite collection. Aren’t they perfect? Brilliant, like a piano. But over here, if you’re more revolutionary, as I might glean from your shoes (or perhaps that stare tells me you are unconvinced), we have our modern section of urban tastes. These pens value expressiveness and yet they’re fashionable, the latest styles for classy writing. Perhaps you’d like these more professionally dressed ball-points. They define precision, so mistake-free I would venture to say they’re smart. It’s simply inspiring, like the words panache and pizzazz. Have a kind of glossy flair, don’t they? With names like Lancelot, Energel, Clarius, Silhouette, and Capri (sharp names, smooth names), they’d make anyone practically envious. These are the sleek ones, the desirable ones. These are the best ink-eaters.
Customer: I rescue pens from the floor, from corners and Lost and Found boxes, from the edges of sidewalks, from the trash. I rarely buy them; I can’t remember the last time I did. Am I stingy or am I holy?
Armory Attendant: Your poor writing may be your pen’s fault. We want to make writing effortless. Our pens become an armchair for your hand. Come test the tungsten carbide ball points. They were fire-hardened in ovens to attain diamond-like strength, ground to perfect globes. Cartridges are spun in centrifuges; machines write circles like compasses to test the new-forged pens’ mettle.
Or perhaps you prefer felt-tip, leaky ink. Artists are fond of those. But I warn you, the stain is permanent…no, not on the skin, don’t worry about that… Oh, but it’s permanent everywhere else!
Customer: I see pens as solid. Who drew with charcoal? With lead? The ashes of fires, it must have been, scraped on rocks as one-dimensional as they could find. But they cut things into rocks first, didn’t they? Spoke for years and remembered for generations; they didn’t need writing. I search for pens on the floor where they lie like discarded pennies, and that’s what most are worth, a dollar or two, unless they are sleek and ergonomic, supersonic, titanium, engineered for the perfect hand to fit in some mysterious fashion. Their names are laughable, attempts at endearment, like “Papermate,” “InkJoy,” and “Pilot,” as if pens were any such company, ecstasy, or authority.
Armory Attendant: We try to make you happy. We try to help you see that magic in ink when your eyes fail, when your mind fails to care about those words you scratch, because you’d rather type, you’d rather gather pixels on a glowing screen, but we want you to know that pens are mighty, pens are ancient, pens are godly—why don’t you love them like we do?
Customer: You’re wrong. I am the proponent of pens; I am their salesman.
The Customer’s Inner Desire: I am searching for the flow, the river from a blueberry, a shining startling line as eloquent as Emerson in mere appearance; as smooth, as rich, as colorful as that wheel my uncle is always talking about, spinning peacock before my eyes, how he joins lines enough to make a moth flutter out of his canvas, those flawless joints between blue and green and purple to red and orange and yellow, back to grass and lakes when they seem deeper because the sky is stormy. I am looking for verisimilitude, for a liar on paper. I am looking for the dark, the night stain on the innocence, the beautiful adulterer perhaps, the perfect line bringing to an empty one dimension several transcendences—all ordinary, all mutable.
Fiction, Vol. 7.1, March 2013
I shuffled in my bedroom smoking one of the last cigarettes in my pack while the light drew train tracks on the ceiling through the slats of my blinds. I didn’t want a cigarette but knew I would later, once the pack was empty, and somehow this fulfilled that future want. I walked around my bed, coughed, and brushed some dust off of the empty bureau. Just slightly beyond the window the sky was about to spit daggers at the sidewalk. We never had winter in London, not properly, just freezing cold rain once or twice a day. Half-open, uneasy umbrellas fluttered about, not wanting to seem presumptuous. The lights came on early, not letting darkness rest on the streets for even a moment. Echoing sirens tried to escape the city, only to hit the gray undersides of all the clouds and be thrown back down at the pavement like high-rise suicides.
Two days earlier I’d received a letter from my mother:
Siofra has killed herself. The funeral is on the 30th.
Siofra had been, in some respects, my first girlfriend. I sat down. I reread the letter a few times and put some water on the stove for tea. I walked to the window and looked out at the sky. I stood there until the water in the pot had boiled away and I could hear the sound of the metal cracking tensely against the heat. I had already called my landlord to tell him I was leaving, left a message for my mother, packed my things into storage, and bought a ticket to Dublin.
I had a few hours before I needed to leave for the airport. I lit another cigarette and went for a walk to see the city I’d be abandoning. Unable to land anything permanent, I’d only worked temporary office jobs in the year since I graduated university, and the apartment was a week-to-week rental. I had few friends and didn’t feel like I was leaving anything behind. I walked the damp streets of London and pictured it as a lung, coughing up garbage and rotting fish with each of the ground’s belches. I could see my breath and tested, a few times, blowing into gusts of steam expelled from the city’s basement. I inhaled deeply and exhaled as soon as the thick air shot up out of vents in the sidewalk. I made a game out of watching my cloud meet the breath of the city. Two teenage girls sat on the street in front of a closed Tesco and passed a brown bag back and forth: so cold and thin and half my age. I could see ribs and nipples under their tatters of shirts. I caught myself and looked away. I tried to imagine Siofra killing herself.
Something had always been off about our neighbor Siofra. When I was very young my father left. My mother and I moved in with my mother’s family: my aunt and uncle, a few cousins, and my grandmother. Siofra lived next door with her mother. I remember her having dense, curly hair and wearing shapeless clothes. As children we would laugh at her when she came over for tea with her mother. My uncle gave us looks that would stone a priest silent, and we would go outside to amuse ourselves. Siofra never did anything particularly strange, but the feeling of the room changed when she entered. Everything got fragile and tense. We kids grew silly as a counterpoint to my mother and aunt, who seemed to become overly polite. We didn’t see Siofra often. Sometimes she sat in her backyard next door, in a bright yellow wicker chair and, more often than not, her mother came to visit alone.
Something happened once my cousins and I hit our teens. We were different now, teenagers, if only thirteen, and Siofra became a mystery to us. Five years older, she was the only person any of us kids saw who was of the age that separated us from our parents. She sat in our parlor next to her mother, never saying a word as the adults chirped about this and that. She never seemed to grow bored of listening and would sip her tea in silence as we watched her. It was as though in understanding something about her we would understand some fundamental step to becoming an adult.
When you watch the sun rise at 30,000 feet it seems like you’re looking down on it. As soon as I got on the plane I ordered a whiskey. The air hostess gave me a startled look, it being barely dawn; still, she quickly brought me the drink and a packet of airline crackers. I sat sulking and wondered what ever happened to airline peanuts when the girl napping next to me suddenly woke up and reached toward me. I jumped back.
“Sorry. Weird dream,” she said.
“That’s alright. Bit of excitement.” She was an American and pushed her straight black hair back behind her ear. “On vacation?” I asked.
“Sort of, I guess. I inherited some money and thought I’d go to Ireland. How about you? Visiting home?”
“I am, in a way. I’m going to a wake.” What a strange thing to say out loud. Why a wake? Will the dead wake up? My mind buzzed with sleeplessness and alcohol.
“I’m sorry.” She seemed to regret asking.
“It’s alright. I barely knew the deceased.” I finished off my whiskey and motioned to the air hostess for a refill.
When we landed all the liquid in my eyes felt thick and made me stumble. My body felt both slimy and dried out, like a newly stretched animal skin hanging above the tent of some fierce, ancient chieftain. Despite the shortness of the flight, I had been awake long enough to already feel more sober than I was. In the rental car, everything was about two inches to the right of where I imagined it should be and I could barely get out of the parking lot. The quick turns made me quickly park. In a small village between the airport and the city, I battled my way through most of a pot of coffee and not very much of a plate of rashers and eggs. Back on the road, I made good time.
Once I’d dropped off the rental and walked the couple of blocks to the funeral home it was after noon. Family and friends dotted the room in mourning, some with black armbands that made me think of fascists. I tried not to mingle. Caleb, the cousin who looked like a buck-toothed Tom Cruise when we were children, swaggered over toward my corner. “It’s a sorry reason to visit the family,” he scolded me.
“It is, yeah. A shame, so. I was planning on coming back this winter for a while, actually,” I lied. “So I just sped up my plans. It gives me a chance to see Mum too. Come to think of it, where is she?”
“Wandering around somewhere with Mamo. I was sorry to hear about yer Da.” Caleb touched his upper lip to his nose in a way that looked as though he was searching for a kiss.
“It’s alright. We weren’t close. Thanks, though.” There was a silence.
“You’re here for a bit then? Living, like?” I say that I am, not having any actual plans. I tell him I’m going to get a place in the west and find something to do for a while, maybe teach.
“Bit of a midlife crisis, then?” he smirked.
Caleb and I had almost finished the pint of Powers I’d bought on the way. My eyes took on a fuzz, and the room seemed particularly hot in the soggy Irish winter. As I folded my glasses and put them in my pocket I spotted my mother at the casket talking to a strange old man in a dark green velvety suit.
“How’re you, Mum?” I said, hugging her. She looked slightly older around her eyes, but, as she continued to dye her hair, didn’t seem as old as she should.
“Sad, but good, considering.” She gave an odd look to the man in the suit and told me, “It’s not a happy reason to get a visit.”
“It isn’t, no. How is everyone taking it?” I asked.
The small man in the velvet suit piped in, “I’ll just absent myself now. I think I could use a drink.” He tipped his hat and walked off.
“And who the hell was that?” I asked.
My mother scolded me for swearing in front of a casket and told me the man was Siofra’s father, who had been living overseas her whole life.
“That seems to be pretty common with fathers around here.” I kept smirking.
“Let’s not bring your father up now, not so soon after his passing, and not at another funeral. I’m going to go and be with Siofra’s mother now. You should pay your respects alone.”
I leaned over the coffin. Under a death mask of makeup her face was brighter than it had been in life. She wore the thin glasses that I’d only seen on special occasions. Her hands were ashen and clasped over her crotch in a way that seemed both lewd and touching, like a little angel in a Christmas choir under the eyes of a pedophile. The flush in my face grew as I leaned over the dead Siofra. She wore a strange smile in death: sarcastic, like she knew a secret. I felt suddenly dizzy and stood up to take a deep drink from my bottle.
Just before the service that followed the wake, all the men gathered outside the church door speaking Irish and looking at their newly shined shoes in the slight rain. The women ticked and crowed around the cars. The smells of aftershave, hairspray, and leather softener all mixed with ocean mist and burning turf so that, by the time we were sitting, all the intentions of the morning clung to the insides of our nostrils. Slumped into cheap wooden pews, the eyes of wide-knuckled men danced up and down the thick calves of Irish womanhood while my cousin Fiachra ran to vomit a bout of morning sickness. I watched and felt spinning from the whiskey and stood, pretending that I was making a trip to the bathroom before the service began. I opened the thick wooden door of the church and stumbled down enormous stone steps. They could have been monoliths left over from some ancient culture. I took two steps on each huge slab of stone to get down and set off in a random direction, fingering a bottle out of my pocket.
I didn’t know Dublin as well as I thought I did and ended up spending the next few hours of evening aimlessly wandering. I followed the smell of dirty surf that combined with garbage and my own bad breath and found myself at the beach. I sat on the wet sand watching uninteresting ships move in and out of the bay. I tried to think about my father, who’d been absent most of my life, and my mother, or mothers in general, or about Siofra or Ireland in general. I couldn’t force a moment of significance to happen and when I stood the ass of my pants was wet.
I knew my mother would be furious with my running out on the service so I rushed to the house and hid myself in my old bedroom before any of the family got home. I laid on my old bed, in what was now a guest room. I remembered the first time I was alone with Siofra. It was during dawn Mass. Once my father wasn’t there to make me, I never went to Mass. My aunt and uncle clucked their tongues at my lack of religion but felt that it wasn’t their place to say anything. While they were away at church I had the house to myself. I’d walk from room to room poking through all the drawers in the bedrooms and my uncle’s study. In his desk I’d found an antique magnifying glass with writing around the handle and held it over one eye, swinging around a letter opener like a pirate’s cutlass. In a large wooden box with gold trim and my uncle’s initials carved on the top I found an ancient pocket watch. It was buried beneath some cuff links, a medal on a fraying purple ribbon, and a small telescope. I lifted it away from the other artifacts and held it up to the light. It had no chain, and the glass was scratched to the point of making the numbers impossible to read. I was holding it up to the light in the middle of my uncle’s study when the doorbell rang, jarring me. In fear of being caught I quickly put the box back on the shelf, closing its lid with a loud snap, and slipped the watch into my pocket.
At the door was Siofra. “I never go to Mass either. I thought I’d see who was here,” she said.
“Just me. Everyone leaving woke me up so I’ve been sitting around,” I said, thinking that she somehow knew I’d put the watch into my pocket and had come over to work a confession from me.
We sat in the dribbling early morning light working at a silence. I remember staring at her like she was a specimen or a painting. I kept my hand solidly in my pocket holding the watch so it wouldn’t slip into her gaze.
“What is it?” she asked, suddenly.
“It’s a watch. It was in my uncle’s study. I didn’t mean to pinch it. You just scared me with the bell so I put it in my pocket.”
She smiled and punched me in the arm. “I meant what’s bothering you. You seem scared.”
“You didn’t know?”
“No. How could I have?”
We sat like that a while longer while I realized I’d given myself up and wondered what Siofra would do with the information.
“I didn’t mean to steal it.”
“I promise I won’t tell,” she said, and smiled.
We sat for a moment longer. I reached over without thought and put my hand on her right breast, still looking forward. With my right hand angled across my body it was an awkward motion and I had to turn to face her. Her body was stiff and her eyes forward, as I sat watching my motionless hand sit on her large and shapeless breast. “Not here,” she said, and went down the basement stairs.
I followed her. There was a couch, a TV, and a few bookshelves, lit only by light bulbs dangling a few paces apart. Siofra was round, standing naked next to the couch. Her curly red hair caught all of the light from the bare bulb behind her. Not knowing what was next, I undressed and walked to stand in front of her. She told me to lie down and set about straddling me: making my body ready. I felt a tingling like I had to pee when she put me inside her and, terrified of wetting myself, whimpered, flailing my thorny kid’s arms to push her off, but she moaned “no” and held my hands down on her thick thighs, beginning to sway on my lap. After a moment, just a few seconds of swaying, and with a cry, I came. I didn’t know if I had peed in Siofra or something else. The feeling of it was a mix of urination, pain, and a strangely satisfying unknown pleasure very low in my body.
She quickly ran upstairs saying she had to pee. I sat with my knees pressed to my chest on the beaten black couch we’d just soiled. The sun started to rise outside and drained through the one small window. In the painting on the wall, Christ looked a challenge over his shoulder to Noah. I replaced the pocket watch in my uncle’s study and waited in my room, pretending to be asleep.
For two or three months, we continued to be together each Sunday while our families were at Mass. Each time I would put something of my uncle’s in my pocket and she would ring the bell. We never spoke about it. Each time I would let her in and we would go silently downstairs. She would absent herself to pee afterwards and let herself out of the house. After she had left I’d return the token I’d stolen from my uncle. One day I just didn’t answer the door when she rang. I walked around the house and couldn’t find anything interesting, no matter where I snooped. From then on we didn’t make eye contact when she came to the house with her mother. I never spoke of it to anyone and avoided her in the neighborhood. I didn’t see her on the few short trips I made home after leaving for England and university.
From behind my closed door I could hear my family come home. I heard tea being made and steps toward my room. I closed my eyes and pretended to be asleep. There was a light knock at my door and it opened a crack. There was a sigh and my mother said lightly, “Right then. Safe and sound.” The footsteps went back to the kitchen.
I woke up after midnight and stood outside my family’s house while they slept inside. I lit a cigarette and tried my best to not cough, not wanting to wake anyone. I closed my eyes and took a step toward Siofra’s house. I walked around the back and saw her chair sitting in the middle of the slightly overgrown yard. I opened the back door and put out my cigarette. I looked into the darkness of the open space and turned on the light.
Siofra’s mother was staying with friends and clearly hadn’t been home since she had found the body. I took a step farther into the house and kicked the receiver of the phone. I picked it off the floor and replaced it in its cradle. I sat on the couch, then stood up. I looked at my watch but couldn’t focus on the numbers. I did the dishes in the sink and wandered around the rooms, opening Siofra’s mother’s jewelry box, emptying a few ashtrays in the living room. I stood next to Siofra’s bed and tried to cry. I willed my eyes but nothing would come. I wiped my dry eyes on Siofra’s nightgown, which had no scent. I put my last, nearly full, pack of cigarettes on the living room table and walked from room to room turning off each light.
Fiction, Vol. 7.1, March 2013 During Lexi Holt’s tenth summer, when the world was endless ocean with a ceiling of shooting stars, when pain came with Revlon kisses and a side of mint chocolate chip, she watched her baby brother drown. It did not happen […]
Fiction, Vol. 7.1, March 2013
Eddie wanted children all of a sudden. Beth thought it was classic water sign behavior. Eddie was a Cancer born in late June. His mind changed with the force of a river whose weirs have been lifted after a heavy rain.
But Beth was an Earth sign born in April. This made her very good at her job. Not everybody was cut out to be a nurse at a children’s hospital. The human body had enormous potential for infection and injury, pain and stink. Every day at work she tended to the broken, invaded, and diseased of other people’s children. Earth signs gave comfort.
But Beth knew this for a grounded certainty: She did not want her own children.
Eddie wanted to talk about it in the car on the way to his parents’ house for Christmas. His sweet begging was too much. Beth looked out the window as they wound down the Pacific Coast Highway. At least the ocean was on her side.
“You can’t say you’ll never want kids, Beth. You can’t say that. You don’t know.”
“I do know.”
“You know for now,” Eddie said. “But you don’t know a year from now.”
“I do know.”
“And I respect that you feel that way now,” he said. “But at some point we are going to want to make a family.”
Beth turned to study his profile. He looked like Richard Gere looked in the American Gigolo years. His looks still surprised her sometimes. In the mirror they were mismatched. She wanted to be home lying on top of him with the top of her head wedged beneath his round chin. Mostly she wanted him to stop talking so that their marriage would quit shifting around like watery landfill in a seismic event.
“You’ll make a great mom,” he said. “That’s what I know.”
Dread flipped in Beth’s stomach. He didn’t look at her at all but kept his eyes on the traffic.
Within a half hour of their arrival Eddie’s mother asked straight out, “When are you going to start having babies?”
She spoke with the usual authority but with a sly smile too. The woman never truly smiled. Beth ached to return it. How nice it would be to be able to feel that her mother-in-law liked her and had an interest in her, maybe even loved her a little bit just because she was part of the family. But Beth caught Eddie’s eyes and saw their hopeful shine. She couldn’t play games. Not even for a second.
“We’re not having children, Alma. We never planned to.”
The old mother’s face fell and she looked over at her son. Eddie wrapped his arm around her thin shoulder and muttered in Spanish. Alma nodded and glared as if Beth had just bared her teeth.
All evening Eddie’s parents welcomed a never-ending stream of guests Beth did not know. She stuck by her husband’s side, smiling and meeting all of the relatives and family associates. They were handsome, silver-haired people, burnished by the sun even in winter. The oldsters were interspersed with a few exhausted but well-groomed cousins Eddie and Beth’s age who also had driven a far distance for the party. Eddie’s sister Carmen worked the crowd. She talked and smiled as though she were happy and kind, holding her 2-year-old daughter Nadia on one hip. She’d done the child up in white lace, ankle socks, shiny black patent shoes. Nadia stared at everyone with enormous brown eyes and clutched her mother’s blouse.
Eddie’s relatives came from Bolivia. They were Yugoslav expats whose families had emigrated to South America after World War II, before making their way to California later on. They were bankers, car dealers, jewelry store owners. They comported themselves with the elegance and remove of banished royalty.
Before lapsing into conversations in Spanish, several of the older generation remarked aloud that Beth and Eddie had no children. In the eyes of these tan and silver relatives, this was an error to be fixed, like the hole in the knee of her pants that she’d only just noticed. Beth ended up by herself in the corner by the sliding glass door with a glass of wine and considered hiding behind the curtain with it so that she could drink alone.
Eddie approached with another old woman on his arm. His aunt. She raised her spider leg eyebrows and asked a question in rapid Spanish. Beth chuckled and turned to her husband.
“In translation.” Eddie cleared his throat. “Are you pregnant now?”
He left Beth to answer. He watched her answer.
“No. Why? Do I look fat?” She laughed again but nobody else did.
Eddie’s mother didn’t speak to Beth the whole night of the party, nor later when they helped clean up. She still did not speak to her in the morning when Beth got up early and made breakfast for the whole family.
Carmen wouldn’t even look at Beth. During the breakfast, she spoke only to her mother and then mostly in clipped Bolivian Spanish. The old woman responded in a tired voice. She did not sit down to eat. She hovered while Beth cooked. She elbowed in to wash the pans Beth used the minute Eddie announced breakfast was ready.
“We’ll do that, Mama,” Eddie said, but he did not fight his mother. She scrubbed at the dishes with steel wool. Her forearms flexed. Eddie took a seat across from his father, who read the newspaper and ignored everybody.
“I don’t like breakfast food,” Carmen said to no one in particular. She had scraped back her sleek hair into a bun. She looked like an angry ballerina. Baby Nadia threw an apple slice across the table but nobody paid attention.
Eddie and Beth ate baked peach pancakes and sausage in silence and looked at one another. He: Are you angry? She: Don’t talk to me.
Nadia sat in a wooden high chair. It was the one Eddie sat in as a baby and Carmen before him. Eddie’s baby butt must have suffered in that hard chair. It was an absurd and archaic piece of furniture. Beth cut sausage into much daintier pieces than she would have if they were alone. Eddie’s family made her feel like a troll.
Carmen wouldn’t give her daughter any of the breakfast. She had prepared Nadia’s food herself and it was red apple slices and skinned grapes. Nadia was a different kid from the clinger at the party. She laughed and was the only one talking to everybody. She had a lot of commentary in a mix of English and Spanish, the nouns rounded in the tumbler of her baby mouth.
“Appoh,” she said and dropped an apple slice on the floor. Beth reached down to get it but Carmen moved faster. Carmen scooped it up, her curved acrylic fingernails clicking against the linoleum like stilettos.
“Manzana,” Carmen said.
Nadia laughed, showing off a row of gapped teeth. Carmen’s own smile escaped. Her eyes flashed softness as she wiped the baby’s mouth.
At the final blessed end of the meal, Eddie took plates to the sink to be sucked into the storm of his mother’s washing.
“It’s time for us to go, Ma,” Eddie said. “We have to hit the road.”
His father rattled the newspaper. “The traffic is going to be bad,” he said.
Carmen screamed. Her chair toppled backwards. Nadia’s eyes widened in a mottled purple face. Her arms and legs flopped while Carmen grabbed her and drummed at her narrow back with a futile open hand. The grandfather began to bark directions in Spanish, jabbing the air with his knobby finger.
The grandmother rushed over and pulled on Nadia’s legs. Eddie’s mother and sister made a tug-of-war with the dying, choking child between them.
Beth moved in. She shoved Eddie’s mother aside and took the baby. She hefted Nadia face down across the length of her arm. Carmen flapped at Beth’s back like a crow, but Beth just squeezed Nadia’s little face between thumb and forefinger, folding the baby’s cheeks and mouth in one hand. She struck the space between the baby’s shoulders and did it again and then the baby coughed. An apple wedge fell from her mouth and she cried the loud, long, breathless wail of a child in true pain and fear.
Beth righted her child-laden arm and gathered Nadia into her chest. She kissed her firm, wet cheek and whispered in her ear. Only then did she hand the baby over to Carmen who stood weeping with her hard knuckled fists opening and closing.
Eddie slumped at the table and put his head in his hands. His mother made the sign of the cross.
Carmen turned away from them all and went into the living room. Nadia’s crumpled but now pink face looked over her mother’s shoulder and with one tired starfish hand waved Beth good-bye.
Sixteen years later, Nadia missed the late night Greyhound to Oroville out of San Jose because they changed the lines without bothering to change the schedule.
“You missed it,” the ticket lady said. “Next one, 6 a.m.”
Nadia dropped into a plastic chair in the empty station. The hostile engines of an unmanned NASCAR arcade game droned by the soda machine. She could have been the last person in the world or else stuck in a very lonely and frustrating level of hell.
The thought of getting on a bus back to the dorms in Santa Cruz hurt like a hammer upside the head. Nadia wanted to be at Dani’s house in Oroville. She wanted Dani’s bedroom with its candles and incense. She wanted Dani with her butterscotch arms and cornsilk hair.
A person who wanted another person as much as Nadia wanted Dani should have that person. She should be able to get to her. It shouldn’t be so fucking difficult.
The Greyhound meandered from Santa Cruz to Oroville on a string of nowhere-villes: Vacaville, Roseville. She didn’t have to disembark and transfer but one time. San Jose. Now the bus chugged up Highway 680 with an empty seat that she’d already paid for.
Nadia meant to roll into Oroville at four in the morning and crawl into bed with Dani while she slept. She meant to be there earlier than expected as a surprise. Now Nadia had to go back to the dorms at UCSC. Try again tomorrow. It was so stupid. The disappointment got hard in her stomach and rolled around in there. She felt like puking.
“Santa Cruz,” Nadia said, back at the ticket window.
“There’s no more lines tonight.” The lady turned away as Nadia cursed and then a security guard grabbed her elbow. He shoved her out onto the street and locked the glass door between them.
Nadia spun around. The building across the street stood dark and boarded up. Nothing up the street looked open either. She pounded on the station door but someone inside turned off the lights. She was left in the hazy yellow halo of the streetlamp.
She didn’t know anyone in San Jose at all. There was nobody back at school with a car that she knew well enough to call for help. She couldn’t pay for a cab back over the mountain. She only had what was left of the tips from a week of waiting tables and that money came too hard anyway to spend on a damn cab.
Her abuela and mother lived four hours away in Los Osos. They lived too far away to help. Even if she did call them, they would only yell and scream and ask questions she could never answer.
Tio Eddie and his wife Risa lived in San Luis. Not helpful. Too far away. Plus, they’d tell.
That left Tio Eddie’s ex-wife Beth Martin in Los Gatos. Beth sent a birthday card every year along with twenty bucks, even though Nadia never saw her. After her thirteenth birthday Nadia asked how come she never had to write a thank you note to Beth. For other relatives she had to write notes if they so much as said bless you after she sneezed.
“She’s not even your aunt anymore,” Mama said.
“Then why does she send me money?”
Abuela made the sign of the cross. Mama didn’t answer. She only looked out the window.
Nadia began writing secret thank you notes to her ex-aunt and sending them without telling anybody. She remembered liking Beth. Tio Eddie and Beth divorced when Nadia was five. Mama said Beth was no good. She said Beth told stories at family parties about working as a nurse in a children’s hospital. She dealt with the worst cancers, dog maulings, kids with intestinal parasites. She didn’t notice everyone losing their appetites when she talked about it over the paella.
Nadia would have liked the stories. A lady like Beth would never flinch no matter what a kid had wrong with her. Anyway it was worth it to try because if she stayed here she would get killed or raped or maybe both. She stepped out of the light and ticked away at her phone in the dark. She found the number of Beth Martin in Los Gatos. Beth’s voice was cool as water. She promised to hurry. She ordered Nadia to stay put and to stay out of sight.
Nadia leaned against the wall. She closed her eyes and conjured Dani. Dani wore long feathered earrings that she let Nadia remove with her teeth. Dani’s neck smelled like warm cloves and the smoke from a wood-burning stove.
The last time she’d visited Oroville was in September. Dani’s soft belly from just the summer before was gone. Her hipbones jutted beyond her stomach and Nadia’s were getting like that too. They lay smoking in Dani’s bed. Their hips touched. Their elbows too. “We’ll be knocking together like old ladies pretty soon,” Dani said. “We’ll be a couple of bags of bones.” If Dani were caught out in the cold in a bad part of a city she would laugh and say fuck it and anybody who tried to mess with her would end up with her boot in his mouth. Nadia huffed into her hands and tried to conjure that level of courage. She was exhausted. The long bus ride was when she was finally supposed to get some sleep. She’d timed it on purpose.
A Subaru pulled up and a red-haired woman inside popped open the passenger door. Nadia bounded out of the shadows and jumped into the car.
“That is an awful place,” Beth said, heading towards the freeway. “Totally unsafe. I’m glad you called. Where can I take you?”
“Can I sleep on your couch tonight? You can just drop me at a Greyhound station on your way to work or whatever.” Nadia felt out of breath.
“Where are you going on the bus?”
“Nope.” Nadia held her fingers to the heater vent and played with the hot air and tried to breathe regular.
“Aren’t you in school? Won’t you be missing class?”
“Are you going to call my mother?”
Beth’s mouth clamped into a line. She shook her head. “You’ll be nineteen soon.”
On the way, Nadia dozed off without meaning to and woke when they stopped.
Beth’s house smelled like vanilla. “Are your kids asleep?” Nadia whispered.
“I don’t have kids,” she said.
Nadia was surprised. She knew that Beth and Eddie hadn’t had children together, but Beth seemed like she’d be somebody’s mother. She led Nadia to a yellow room with a bed covered in a fat quilt.
“That’s Don across the hall in my room,” she said. “He’s a big guy. If you meet him on the way to the toilet in the middle of the night, don’t be scared.”
Nadia nodded and eyed the bed. “I guess I’ll get some sleep now,” she said.
Beth stood there for a second then she took Nadia’s hand like they were about to cross a street or something. She pulled her into the bathroom and flipped on the overhead light. With iron hands she grabbed Nadia’s shoulders and forced her to face the mirror. The rim of the sink dug into Nadia’s stomach. It felt like it would cut her in half.
“You might want to look at yourself,” Beth said. “I don’t know if you’ve done that in a while.”
Nadia squinted. Bruisey purple half moons underscored her eyes and her cheekbones cut long grooves into her face.
She twisted free and fled back into the guest bedroom with its cheery lemonade walls and fluffy pillows.
She should leave. Run out of the house and not come back.
Beth strode in after her, chased her really, and stopped on the other side of the bed. Nadia just wanted to lie down. If she didn’t then her head would crack open and all of the brains would spill out, ending the impasse right there.
A man emerged behind Beth. He was a tall black man in pajamas. He whispered something and Beth sighed but didn’t say another thing to Nadia. She followed the man into the other bedroom and closed the door.
Nadia took off her jeans and slipped in between the cool white sheets and fell asleep.
Afternoon winter light sliced through Nadia’s eyelids. She blinked awake and pawed the floor for her jeans and her phone to look at the time.
It was after one o’clock in the afternoon. Her jaw ached and her teeth were killing her. She threw a pillow at the wall and cursed.
Beth knew she needed a ride to the bus in the morning but didn’t bother to wake her up. She should have known better than to trust her.
Nadia yanked her jeans back on and laced up her boots. She stomped into the empty kitchen. A note on the table from Beth said that she would be home by four. It said help yourself to anything. Help yourself.
Nadia looked out the window. There was a car in the driveway, not the Subaru, but a Volkswagen bug. It was yellow and shiny in the sunny afternoon. It was cheerful and winking.
She took a hit from the stuff she had in her bag and then went into the bathroom. A hot shower washed away the smells of the twelve hours straight of work in a greasy restaurant and the hopeless bus station. Nadia used Beth’s honey and vanilla-smelling soap and lotion. When Nadia and Dani were rich, they would never ride the bus. They would work in law firms or run their own businesses. They would be through waitressing in the cheapo old people restaurants that served calamari steak specials that sat on the plate like beige shoe leather. They would drive around in a beautiful car and eat in fine places and leave grand tips for their waitresses because they would know how it felt.
Nadia found the keys in a ceramic frog’s mouth on the mantel above the fireplace. Nadia’s own high school graduation photo stood beside it in a frame. It startled her. Her shiny, chubby face grinned between curtains of long hair. That was how she used to look. Nadia knocked it down.
She wrote Beth a note in return. I’ll be back in three days. She added a smiley face to lighten the mood.
The air was cool on her wet head. She buzzed with energy and fresh purpose. The miles between Los Gatos and Dani stretched and contracted ahead of her. She headed north to the faceless town of Oroville, that dirt-colored shell that held Dani who was like a beautiful pearl and the only thing she cared about in the world.
North and east she headed. She would face only north and east until she made it to the lair of the source of the northeastern wind, her northeastern goddess, her witch, her sweetheart, her best and only friend.
The next morning in the tiny apartment bathroom, Dani pushed Nadia with hands like claws. Her hard palms slammed against Nadia’s breastbone. Dani’s face contorted with rage Nadia recognized, but also an emptiness that she didn’t. She begged Dani move with her to Santa Cruz and apply for financial aid and go to school. Dani sang back the idea in a mean singsong that stung like a whip.”We’ll graduate together. We’ll live in a big house by the sea,” Dani said. She sneered and cursed. She tore at her own hair and pulled at her own uniform work skirt. She was a brown gingham nightmare shadow of Dani, shrieking, “This is me. This is how it is.”
Nadia’s head still buzzed a little from the leftover crystal they smoked the night before. She shoved her things into her bag while Dani brushed her teeth in hard jabs and muttered around the toothbrush that she had to go to work. She worked for a living and if she didn’t work then she didn’t get paid. She didn’t have time for bullshit.
Dani spit and let the water glass fall to the hard tiles beneath her bare feet. It shattered as Nadia walked out the door.
For five hours Nadia drove straight through. No stops, not even to pee. She pulled into Beth’s driveway.
She left her bag on the porch and knocked and waited.
Beth opened the door and stepped back. She went into the kitchen and sat down.
Nadia followed and handed over the keys. It seemed pointless to speak, though she understood some things were expected when you took someone’s car without asking.
“Thanks for not calling the police,” she said.
“I didn’t do you any favors by not calling them.”
Nadia felt too hollow to be embarrassed. She was on the downside of a high that was weak to begin with. She was rolling down and picking up velocity toward a steel hammer headache and a leaden soul.
“You’re a mess,” Beth said. The late winter camellias in the front yard brushed against the window glass in the wind.
“It would have been nice if you woke me up. I wouldn’t have taken your car then.”
“I tried. You might as well have been dead. Methamphetamines, I’m guessing.”
Nadia didn’t answer. She couldn’t explain that the meth wasn’t the point. It was just a way to be with Dani. In high school they would go to clubs together high and powerful as queens, dancing until their bodies moved together like one beautiful, four-armed creature. What she used back in Santa Cruz was only to help through the monster work shifts she needed to raise money to see Dani, to give to Dani. Dani made the days in the crowded and noisy dorms and boring lecture halls have a reason. Nadia had no problem writing papers and gutting out exams when she knew that someday at the end of it Dani would be her family. The big house by the sea had been more than just an idea for Nadia. It had been the land she was swimming toward.
Now her future stretched out like a dead body.
She ached for some coffee but didn’t want to ask Beth for another thing.
“I saved your life once before,” Beth said, her voice calm and pleasant like the beginning of a bedtime story. “You were two. You almost died, choking on an apple slice. It’s amazing, what will take a child. You keep the poisons up high then she chokes to death on breakfast.” Beth filled a pot with water, scooped out coffee, ground up beans.
“We were at the table and suddenly you turned blue. Nobody knew what to do. Your grandmother, of course, with her prayers,” Beth shook her head. “I picked you up and did what you do when a baby chokes. And you turned pink again.”
Nadia felt relieved that it ended well. It was good news that once, she was rescued.
“But what do you do,” Beth asked, “when a young woman chokes?”
She came forward and took Nadia’s face in between her finger and thumb. She clutched Nadia’s chin in the web of her strong hand and squeezed her cheeks until her lips puckered. It hurt but Nadia let her do it.
“I must have been a fool,” Beth said. “Leaving a teenage drug addict alone in my house. And you’re a fire sign on top of it, with tendencies toward passion and spontaneous travel.”
Nadia’s tears spilled into Beth’s palm. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said. Her voice sounded funny from out of her scrunched-up mouth.
“In translation,” Beth said. “Stay here. Let me help you. We are family, after all. In a way.” She let Nadia’s face go and went to pour the coffee.
Nadia turned to the window by her chair. She rested her forehead against a cold pane. Her breath steamed up the glass as she exhaled through air passages constricted by fear.
She’d stay for at least a night or two. For that chunk of time she might not die.
She took another breath.