Month: December 2013

Writer Round-Up: Kevin Prufer, Victoria Redel, Kamilah Aisha Moon, & C. Dale Young

Writer Round-Up: Kevin Prufer, Victoria Redel, Kamilah Aisha Moon, & C. Dale Young

Writer Round-Up: A Collective Interview Wherein Writers We Like Discuss Topics Related to the Craft Four Way Books Authors : Kevin Prufer, Victoria Redel, Kamilah Aisha Moon, & C. Dale Young Interview by Cynthia Reeser For Prick of the Spindle, Vol. 7.4, Dec. 2013 ~ […]

A Conversation with Bonnie Jo Campbell, Author of Once Upon a River

A Conversation with Bonnie Jo Campbell, Author of Once Upon a River

Interview by Stephanie Renae Johnson For Prick of the Spindle, Vol. 7.4, Dec. 2013 I first encountered Bonnie Jo Campbell’s writing through the Writers-in-Residence program as an undergraduate at Flagler College. I was struck by Ms. Campbell’s sense of place, intricate wordplay, and strong characters. […]

The Therapist by Malia Ahrens

The Therapist by Malia Ahrens

Drama, Vol. 7.4, Dec. 2013

Cast of Characters

BRITTANY – A woman in her late twenties. She should be played as almost another character with every character she interacts with, as though she is leading a double life.
FRANK – A man in his early thirties. He really cares about Brittany, and it shows in everything he does.
SUSAN – A woman in her late fifties. She doesn’t realize the hurt she has caused but knows she wants to fix it.

Setting

A small hotel room and later, a small office space. The time is the present.

(Two chairs occupy the stage with a divider between them)

BRITTANY
Does this go together? (She holds up two imaginary articles of clothing, pulling them to her body as if to compare them)

FRANK
Uh…

BRITTANY
What?

FRANK
They’re both black.

BRITTANY
And?

FRANK
I love ya darlin’, but black?

BRITTANY
It just seems fitting.

FRANK
What happened to the bright colors you wear back home? You usually hate black.

BRITTANY
It’s…a uniform.

FRANK
A uniform?

BRITTANY
(She tries to come up with a logical response) It helps with the clients?

FRANK
Then why don’t you use this “uniform” when you’re with the other clients?

BRITTANY
Those are…different. This is a special case.

FRANK
Special… So, more special than the guy who thinks there is a squirrel wheel inside his head and that he must eat peanut butter to make the squirrel run faster to give himself a longer life?

BRITTANY
At least he’s eating now.

FRANK
Or more special than the girl who has screaming fits with herself over the imaginary dinosaur living in a closet to a room that doesn’t exist?

BRITTANY
Well, maybe special isn’t the right word. Maybe different?

FRANK
More different than–

BRITTANY
(Interrupting) Uggghhh. I knew I should never have told you any of that!

FRANK
(He laughs it off) I’m just messin’ with ya.

(She fusses over her hair and puts on a big black floppy hat covering her face. He sits in one of the chairs and starts watching TV. Both remain silent.)

Come on, laugh. I hate to see you so down.

BRITTANY
I’m not down, per se. Just… (Long sigh)

FRANK
Hey. (He tries to get her to smile) Your favorite movie is on–Monty Python!

BRITTANY
I wish I could search for the holy grail right now. (She laughs and almost mumbles the rest) Anything but this. (She looks at herself in the imaginary mirror)

(There is a long, awkward pause between the two of them. BRITTANY fusses over her outfit and FRANK tries to cheer her up by acting silly, to no avail. Defeated, he continues.)

FRANK
So…Why did you want me to come anyway? Usually I’m not allowed to meet your clients.

BRITTANY
You won’t be meeting this one either.

FRANK
Okay, then. But I’m not usually a part of this at all. It just seems weird you’d want me to come now.

BRITTANY
I just thought it would be nice to have you along, seeing as though it’s so far away from home. Is that so bad?

FRANK
No, it’s just that last I checked, this is closer than the client in California.

BRITTANY
That was just for the weekend.

FRANK
What aren’t you telling me?

BRITTANY
Why do you think I’m not telling you something?

FRANK
(He crosses his arms over his chest, looking at her) You mean to tell me you are being one-hundred percent honest with me?

BRITTANY
Come on, have I ever lied to you?

FRANK
True, I just worry about you.

BRITTANY
I’m fine.

FRANK
I’m still worried about you.

BRITTANY
I know, and that’s why I love you so much.

FRANK
I love you too.

BRITTANY
How do I look? (She holds out her arms)

FRANK
Like Gloom’s cousin Doom.

BRITTANY
Funny.

FRANK
Well, you asked.

BRITTANY
Never mind. It doesn’t matter anyway.

FRANK
Whoa, red flag going up. Come on, what is this, really?

BRITTANY
It’s nothing. Okay?

FRANK
Saying that means it is something. What’s wrong?

BRITTANY
For the millionth time I AM FINE!

FRANK
I’m not stupid enough to think that fine means fine in this instance.

BRITTANY
Well, then, fine. Don’t believe me.

FRANK
No need to get hostile. Something must really be up. We never fight. What is it?

BRITTANY
I’m a big girl. I’m fine.

FRANK
You sure?

(She glares at him)

FRANK
It’s just that you’re more freaked out than usual, and I’m concerned. Is that so bad?

BRITTANY
What makes you think I’m freaked out?

(She stands up straight, trying to appear calm)

FRANK
Well, I’m here for one thing. We never fight and now it seems we are on the brink of one. And instead of the normal colors you wear, now you’re all dressed in black.

BRITTANY
So I wanted you here. Big deal. Besides, I told you this is a uniform, of sorts.

FRANK
On top of that you’re not talking like you usually do. There’s none of that sweet giggling you do that made me fall in love with you…

BRITTANY
I don’t feel like giggling today.

FRANK
It’s almost like you’re afraid of something… (He places his hand on her shoulder, giving her a reassuring squeeze)

BRITTANY
(She gives a long sigh) Aren’t I supposed to be the therapist here?

FRANK
What can I say? I have learned from the best.

BRITTANY
I…

FRANK
(He embraces her, trying to comfort her) What is it?

BRITTANY
I grew up here. (She crosses her arms over her chest. Looking down, she delivers her line, then hides her face in her hand.)

FRANK
Like here all that stuff happened?

BRITTANY
Yes.

FRANK
Aww, baby…

BRITTANY
This is just so overwhelming.

FRANK
Then, why are you here? I don’t understand.

BRITTANY
This is the only place she could meet.

FRANK
That’s weird. Small town and all.

BRITTANY
I really don’t want to be recognized.

FRANK
Ah, hence the dark clothes.

BRITTANY
Yeah.

FRANK
Awe, Brittany. I’m so sorry (He hugs her)

BRITTANY
I’m alright.

FRANK
Yeah, I can see that.

BRITTANY
(Groans) I don’t want to be here.

FRANK
Why did you even take the job?

BRITTANY
Well, I wasn’t going to. I’ve been putting it off for years, but the other day I got this e-mail.

FRANK
An e-mail?

BRITTANY
That’s how I’ve been talking to her. She contacted me through my online support group, only instead of getting support from everyone she asked to have a separate area that was just us. I found it odd but I didn’t ask any questions–I didn’t want to upset her. And then she wanted to use an alias! It was the oddest thing yet. I guess she just really doesn’t want anyone to know who she is but…I didn’t want to come back here.

FRANK
How did the e-mail change your mind?

BRITTANY
She just seemed so desperate. I was scared if I didn’t come out then she might harm herself or someone else.

FRANK
That bad, huh? She must really need you.

BRITTANY
Yeah, I just… I couldn’t say no but now, being here…

FRANK
What is it, Britt? (He pulls her in for a hug)

BRITTANY
I wish I could just stay here in your arms. I feel so safe with you.

FRANK
No client should put you through this.

BRITTANY
I guess you could say it isn’t in the job description.

FRANK
I guess the fine print is missed sometimes.

BRITTANY
That’s it. I can’t do this. I’m going to cancel, say I missed my flight.

FRANK
You can’t just ditch her. Even though I could easily find something to occupy your time.

BRITTANY
Ugh, how can you even think like that here? You’re impossible! (She laughs the last few words)

FRANK
You married me. Mr. and Mrs. Impossible.

BRITTANY
(BRITTANY glances up at the clock, then looks down, a worried expression replacing her smile)

FRANK
You’re acting funny, Britt. Please tell me what else is wrong.

BRITTANY
I can’t right now.

(An alarm rings. Another silence falls between them)

FRANK
Didn’t you say you had to be out of here by seven?

BRITTANY
Yeah…

(Long pause. Brittany fusses with her clothes, still unsure and insecure about the entire situation. She wants to confide in her husband but can’t at the moment. She trifles with her hair. Frank tries to speak a few times, rationalizing that the previous conversational topics are inappropriate, and thinks about what to say. He toys with a small trinket on the table beside him.)

FRANK
Where are you meeting her?

BRITTANY
There’s a small office here in town where we can meet. I had my secretary fix it up.

FRANK
Oh… Good…must be close?

BRITTANY
Yeah, just around the corner…across the street from a small bakery. You have my secretary’s number don’t you?

(Another long pause)

FRANK
Yeah….Well, you better get going then.

BRITTANY
Probably…

FRANK
Bye, I love you.

BRITTANY
Love you too. Bye.

(Lights fade to a dim wash as BRITTANY walks around the stage like she is exiting the room and walking to her office. As she walks, FRANK exits and another woman sits in his place. After the woman sits in FRANK’S chair with her back to BRITTANY, lights raise a little, revealing the two chairs with the divider and the woman. BRITTANY enters and sits on the opposite side of the divider. Note the divider is not entirely solid and you can tell there is someone sitting on the other side. Also note that both chairs are facing the house, so the reactions and facial expressions are clearly visible to the house. BRITTANY takes a deep breath before she steps into the room. She holds a clipboard with a file attached to it, a pencil in her hair. Nervously, she removes the pencil and taps on the clipboard and soon begins bouncing her knee. She glances from side to side and checks her watch several times.)

BRITTANY
Hello?

SUSAN
Is that you, Dr. X?

BRITTANY
Yes, I’m here. (Her face wrinkles in almost-confusion at the sound of Susan’s voice)

SUSAN
It feels safer knowing you’re here. Funny how one person can fill your entire world and help so much.

BRITTANY
Yes, usually it’s one person in particular who comforts us the most, be it a family member, spouse, or a friend.

SUSAN
Especially you. I don’t know what I’d do without you. You’re always right there when I need you–just an e-mail away.

BRITTANY
That’s what I’m here for.

SUSAN
Feels good to finally do this.

BRITTANY
Yes–it’s been a long time coming.

SUSAN
It’s weird though, you being here–so close, yet still hidden.

BRITTANY
True. It is a new feeling, being physically closer; although I must remind you that you asked for the confidentiality.

SUSAN
Yes, it’s better this way. I can’t have any accidents.

BRITTANY
Accidents?

SUSAN
Yes, like what if she finds out?

BRITTANY
Would that be so bad?

SUSAN
What do you mean? She ruined everything.

BRITTANY
How?

SUSAN
When she left, she took everything away from her sisters and me. Deserting us. I can’t have her finding out and hurting her sisters again!

BRITTANY
(She looks at the divider, confusion building on her face)

SUSAN (Continued)
I mean really, she has already infected one.

BRITTANY
Infected?

SUSAN
It was in my last e-mail.

BRITTANY
Ah, yes, the e-mail. I’m a bit concerned. You seemed more troubled than you’ve been in a while. Like when you said, “I just can’t keep going like this.” Would you elaborate further?

SUSAN
Well, as you know, I first contacted you because I don’t understand how my eldest daughter could have just run off like that, and because of her, there was a strain on my other daughters and me.

BRITTANY
Yes, go on.

SUSAN
Well, the reason I e-mailed you is, I can’t…I can’t keep going on like this. Just the other day, I was talking to my other daughter, K, and she…she had the nerve to agree with her!

BRITTANY
Agree with whom?

SUSAN
Izzy! Oh, shoot! You don’t know who that is, my eldest. I forget about the fake names sometimes.

BRITTANY
(Realization strikes BRITTANY like a two-ton freight train. She tries to speak.) M–

SUSAN
I’m sorry, couldn’t quite hear you. What was that?

BRITTANY
Are you… How did you…

SUSAN
Doctor, you aren’t making any sense.

(SUSAN moves the divider to the side so both women can see each other. A long pause as they try to figure out how to react.)

SUSAN (Continued)
(Overwhelmed with shock)
What? Why are you here?

BRITTANY
(She looks dazed) I–

SUSAN
I trusted you, and you… How?

BRITTANY
I–

SUSAN
Are you even listening to me, Izzy?

(A moment passes)

BRITTANY
It’s Brittany. (Pause) No one has called me Izzy for years.

SUSAN
You changed your name?

BRITTANY
I changed a lot of things.

SUSAN
I can see that.
(Another long pause)

SUSAN
Did you know about…?

BRITTANY
No. Did you?

SUSAN
No.
(Another pause)

BRITTANY
I should go.

SUSAN
No. Don’t.

BRITTANY
Give me one good reason.

SUSAN
I’m your mother.

BRITTANY
You haven’t been my mother for years. Why start now?

SUSAN
I have always been your mother.

BRITTANY
Funny way of showing it.

SUSAN
I could say the same thing about you as my daughter.

(BRITTANY starts to say something but stops. Silence falls on the stage.)

SUSAN
So, how long are you in town?

BRITTANY
Just the two days.

SUSAN
I see.

BRITTANY
Yeah.

SUSAN
So.

BRITTANY
So what?

SUSAN
What do we do?

BRITTANY
Why do we have to do anything?

SUSAN
Well, just seems like something should be done.

BRITTANY
You should have tried that years ago.

SUSAN
That’s what I mean. What happened?

BRITTANY
What do you mean, “What happened?” You of all people should know!

SUSAN
What did I do to make you hate me so much? To make you not want to visit ever, even when you are here in town.

BRITTANY
I really don’t want to get into this. I shouldn’t even be here.

SUSAN
But you are here.

BRITTANY
Not for you.

SUSAN
For who then?

BRITTANY
Sharon.

SUSAN
My alias?

BRITTANY
Yes, because she needed my help. But I have no intention of staying here with you.

SUSAN
Why not? It can’t be that hard.

BRITTANY
You have no right to talk to me about hard.

SUSAN
Try me.

BRITTANY
I can’t discuss this with you in these terms. Family cannot be clients.

SUSAN
I’m sure we can talk. Come on. Talk to me.

BRITTANY
I can’t. (She gets up to leave)

SUSAN
Of course. Run away, like always. When things get hard, it’s poor pathetic Izzy, running away and crying on her pillow.

BRITTANY
I told you, it is Brittany.

SUSAN
It’s time to stop running and grow up.

BRITTANY
I had to grow up years ago.

SUSAN
No, you did not. You had everything spoon-fed to you.

BRITTANY
Try the other way around.

SUSAN
What is that supposed to mean?

BRITTANY
Logic, Mother. Use logic.

SUSAN
What is that supposed to mean?

BRITTANY
Nothing… Never mind.

(The women look away from each other. The pause is long enough to be uncomfortable. Each woman shifts in her chair.)

BRITTANY
So… How are the girls?

SUSAN
I’d hardly call them girls now. Tiff moved off and joined the military and Kyara is, well, last I heard, moving out West to find work.

BRITTANY
So, it was Kyara that you e-mailed about?

SUSAN
(Silence)

BRITTANY
Now who doesn’t want to talk?

SUSAN
What happened to “family cannot be clients?”

BRITTANY
You don’t have to be a client for us to talk about my little sister.

SUSAN
Yes, it was her.

BRITTANY
So, thinking like her older sister is a bad thing?

SUSAN
It is when her big sister is you.

BRITTANY
Why?

SUSAN
Look at what you did. Everything is your fault.

BRITTANY
No. It isn’t!

SUSAN
Think about it. All the fights, all the drama, the tears, never would have happened if you hadn’t been the way you are–weak.

BRITTANY
I am not weak and leaving proved it. Enough.

SUSAN
Sure it did. Just keep telling yourself that.

BRITTANY
You made me this way.

SUSAN
How?

BRITTANY
Don’t you remember the “talks” we had?

SUSAN
Every mother talks to their child.

BRITTANY
Not like this. You put us all down all the time. In your eyes we were lowly and unworthy.

SUSAN
Not true. I loved each of you.

BRITTANY
Really, Mother? Really?

SUSAN
It’s called tough love.

BRITTANY
Tough love? Tough Love! How can you call it tough love? How is screaming at a child until they burst into tears any form of love?

SUSAN
I was just saying what needed to be heard.

BRITTANY
Do you not hear yourself?

SUSAN
It’s only the truth!

BRITTANY
Maybe to you, but to a six-year-old, it is confusing and harmful.

SUSAN
Maybe to a “weak” six-year-old. I just wish you could be more like Tiffany.

BRITTANY
More like Tiff? Why?

SUSAN
She’s the strongest among you weaklings. Too bad she’s the youngest.

BRITTANY
How do you suppose that?

SUSAN
She’s in the military. Look at the two of you–one talks about feelings all day and the other does God-knows-what.

(BRITTANY is hurt by her words and SUSAN relishes in it. BRITTANY takes a deep breath and SUSAN changes the subject.)

SUSAN
So, where did you go?

BRITTANY
Come again? (She is still a little dazed by SUSAN’s words)

SUSAN
Where have you been all these years?

BRITTANY
I have been making a life for myself.

SUSAN
You had a life here!

BRITTANY
No. I survived here.

SUSAN
You thrived. You had everything you could ever want.

BRITTANY
How did I thrive? Just tell me that!

SUSAN
You excelled in all your classes. You had tons of friends. You had a better childhood than I did–that’s for sure.

BRITTANY
Maybe in the eyes of the problem, but not in mine.

SUSAN
How was I the problem? You are the one that left!

BRITTANY
Will you get over it already? Try thinking about why I left.

SUSAN
Even then, you were thriving with your social life and extracurricular activities. What did you do with everything you had? You threw it away, along with me and everybody else.

BRITTANY
You call that thriving? I wish I lived in the same fantasy as you do; it might have made things easier.

SUSAN
You talk of making things easier. (She makes a sound of disgust) Where were you to make things easier when I lost my job and your sisters had to get a job to help out with the bills? They are the ones who made it easier, not you going off and doing who knows what, who knows where, with who knows who!

BRITTANY
I had to get away, Mother! I would have died and rotted in this one-horse town. I had to escape. I had to get out of your control.

SUSAN
We needed you! And you just left, gone, never heard from until now! At least your sisters come by and visit every once in a while, which is more than I can say for you.

BRITTANY
Where was I? How about where were you when dad left?

SUSAN
That was different.

BRITTANY
Yeah, only because that day I lost both parents instead of just him!

SUSAN
What do you mean? I was right here the entire time.

BRITTANY
Maybe physically, but who was it that put dinner on the table?

SUSAN
(Silence)

BRITTANY
Who was it that helped the girls with their homework?

SUSAN
(Silence)

BRITTANY
Who was it that got a job to help pay the bills that you couldn’t pay, and by the looks of it still can’t pay?

SUSAN
(Silence)

BRITTANY
I lost both parents and in turn became one.

(Both women are again silent; the tension between them is astounding. Both women are looking in opposite directions not speaking when FRANK enters, looking worried.)

FRANK
(Quietly, not wanting to interrupt) Britt–hey, Britt, are you okay?

BRITTANY
(Her eyes widen) What are you doing here?

FRANK
I know. I’m so sorry for interrupting; I just had to check on you. You were acting so weird when you left. And you’ve been gone for longer than usual.

(He turns to SUSAN)

FRANK (Continued)
I am so sorry for interrupting your session.

BRITTANY
This isn’t a session.

SUSAN
Who are you?

FRANK
Then, what is it?

BRITTANY
Chaos. Besides you know not to disturb me. I appreciate your checking on me but I’m a big girl. I can handle this.

FRANK
I know but–

SUSAN
Hello? Who is this?

BRITTANY
(Sharply) It doesn’t matter who this is!

FRANK
Why can’t she know who I am?

SUSAN
Yeah, why?

BRITTANY
It’s not important. You just need to go. Please.

FRANK
I’d like to think till death do us part makes us pretty important to each other.

SUSAN
You got married?

(BRITTANY begins to breathe heavily and look at both of them back and forth, shaking her head “no,” as if to say, ‘no this can’t happen.’)

BRITTANY
Yes. I got married and it is none of YOUR concern.

FRANK
(Reaching around BRITTANY, he extends his hand) I’m Frank Mascotti, her loving husband.

SUSAN
(Shakes his hand after inspecting it) Susan Finch.

(BRITTANY tries hard not to explode. She starts to get up and separate them but realizes that would be a mistake. She puts her hand over her mouth, resting the elbow of the same hand on her knee to prevent herself from saying something.)

FRANK
And I am still very concerned for my wife. (With the last few words, he turns to BRITTANY)
Are you okay?

BRITTANY
(Silence) (Her knee bounces)

FRANK
Are you okay?

BRITTANY
(Silence) (Her knee bounces harder, causing her foot to tap the floor)

FRANK
…sweetie?

BRITTANY
THIS IS MY MOTHER, FRANK! (She stands, and the clipboard crashes to the floor. Susan is taken aback and puts her hand over her chest in shock. FRANK takes a step back and then sarcastically turns to SUSAN to shake her hand.)

FRANK
I’ve heard so much about you.

SUSAN
I haven’t had the pleasure.

(FRANK looks back at BRITTANY. There is yet another long and very uncomfortable pause.)

FRANK
So this is why you were so awkward this morning…

BRITTANY
I didn’t know it was her, I just…

FRANK
I should have known.

BRITTANY
None of us knew. It’s okay.

FRANK
I’m an idiot. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have interrupted and now, knowing this…

BRITTANY
It’s not your fault. It’s okay, really.

FRANK
Should I… (He motions to sit with one hand) Or… (He motions to leave with the other)

SUSAN
By all means, stay.

(BRITTANY shoots a look at SUSAN)

BRITTANY
Frank… (She lowers her head into her hands in frustration)

FRANK
(He takes the hint) I’ll let you two talk. (He kisses her forehead) I am just around the corner if you need me.

SUSAN
Well. He seems nice.

BRITTANY
Don’t.

SUSAN
I was just–

BRITTANY
Don’t.

SUSAN
Fine, then. Tell me what I can do.

BRITTANY
I don’t know.

SUSAN
Well…

(Awkward silence)

SUSAN
Funny how I have been pouring my heart out to you for quite some time now and didn’t know it was you, huh…?

BRITTANY
Yeah…

But I didn’t know it was you either…

SUSAN
So… What now?

BRITTANY
I don’t know.

SUSAN
May I ask you a question?

BRITTANY
Sure.

SUSAN
Why did you leave?

BRITTANY
(She rolls her eyes and groans) You should know by now. Come on.

SUSAN
Well, I don’t and we are both here now. Can’t we talk?

BRITTANY
And what if I don’t want to?

What if talking to you might make me trust you again? Might make me forgive you?

SUSAN
Is that really so bad?

BRITTANY
(Silence)

SUSAN
I don’t know why you left. All I know is, you did. It was hard to adjust and I guess I hurt you without realizing it. I just–

BRITTANY
Just stop.

SUSAN
Then, how can we fix it?

BRITTANY
(Silence)

SUSAN
(Silence)

BRITTANY
I left because I was the only responsible person in the house. I left because I was caring for two children and a grown adult on top of trying to further my education.

SUSAN
I had no idea you felt that way.

BRITTANY
You had no idea of anything. After Dad left, you went off the deep end.

SUSAN
I don’t remember it that way.

BRITTANY
Of course; you wouldn’t. That is why I became a therapist, so I could understand. You were depressed and it affects the body as well as the mind. You were fatigued and who knows what all went wrong in your head. And when you went down, someone had to step up.

SUSAN
You still shouldn’t have left.

BRITTANY
How can you say that?

SUSAN
Because Mother knows best.

BRITTANY
That is not always true.

SUSAN
How would you know? Do you have children?

BRITTANY
(Silence)

SUSAN
That’s what I thought. No children means you do not understand.

BRITTANY
I don’t have children because I can’t.

SUSAN
What do you mean, you can’t?

BRITTANY
My body. I can’t.

SUSAN
I had no idea.

BRITTANY
Of course you wouldn’t.

SUSAN
Is there a reason why?

BRITTANY
Early childhood trauma.

SUSAN
You mean…

BRITTANY
Yes, I cannot have children because of your “tough love.”

SUSAN
I–I’m so sorry.

BRITTANY
Save it.

(BRITTANY turns away from her mother)

SUSAN
I had no–I mean, I didn’t…

(More silence)

BRITTANY
Well, you did.

SUSAN
(Silence)

BRITTANY
But I guess you would expect that out of someone who is weak.

SUSAN
What?

BRITTANY
Isn’t that what you called me, weak?

SUSAN
But I didn’t know that you couldn’t–

BRITTANY
Shouldn’t make a difference.

SUSAN
(Silence)

BRITTANY
So now you know.

SUSAN
So that’s why you hate me…

BRITTANY
(She turns away from SUSAN)

(Silence fills the stage)

SUSAN
So, what now?

BRITTANY
I don’t know.

SUSAN
Do you still want to…

BRITTANY
Want to what?

SUSAN
Be my therapist?

BRITTANY
What?

SUSAN
I mean, why not?

BRITTANY
You’re my mother. And I cannot revisit my childhood.

SUSAN
But, Izzy…

BRITTANY
I can’t.

SUSAN
I need help, Izzy.

BRITTANY
I do too… I do too…

[BLACKOUT]

Baby Teeth by Bridget Apfeld

Baby Teeth by Bridget Apfeld

Fiction, Vol. 7.4, Dec. 2013 The call was not really a surprise to Laurie, in the end. She was not expecting it, but when it did come, the ease at which she slipped into practicality—officiousness thinning her speech, clipping it into something terse and straight—made […]

The Woods by John Caudill

The Woods by John Caudill

Fiction, Vol. 7.4, Dec. 2013 April 2nd Hiker went missing today out at Longleaf Preserve, off State Road forty-four. Twenty-eight-year-old Christy Machen. I saw a picture of the girl. She looked fit and strong. One of them short little bob-cuts and a stout frame. She […]

Maybe You Die and Spend Eternity in Your Empty Bedroom by Jennifer Clements

Maybe You Die and Spend Eternity in Your Empty Bedroom by Jennifer Clements

Fiction, Vol. 7.4, Dec. 2013

He’s hungry. He yanks the two sides of his tweed trousers to meet over the familiar bulk of his oversized old-man belly. He tucks, buttons, and zips. He thinks about the package of Jimmy Dean sausage links for after he gets home from Mass, thinks about the rich pork smell when he opens the door of the microwave. Life as a single man has its perks. He refuses to think of himself as divorced.

He’s taken his morning pills, six of them, marking them on the chart he keeps in the top drawer under his week-at-a-glance pillbox. He slides his hand into his watch. Merle will be here in a few minutes to drive him to church. They both like being early. They always have. Summers, when they were kids, they’d meet halfway on their bikes before heading to the river to fish. If one of them managed to get all the way to the other’s house and, best of all, find him still asleep in bed, well that was a win for the day. He sips his cooling coffee and remembers. He wasn’t always a fretful old man.

He hears the scrape of the snowplow on the lower road and looks out at swirls of snow between him and the black trunks of the walnut trees in the ravine. No fishing today. He shuffles through the papers on the desk. At the bottom of the pile is Faye’s letter.

He needs to sit down. He’s not feeling one hundred percent this morning. He’ll rest a minute.

He picks up the letter. It smells like her. He slaps it down, pushes it away. He can’t believe it says what it does. She’s doing the same stupid thing she did before. Three years ago, she left him, for Cole, after twenty-eight years of marriage, said she was in love, said she had to follow her heart. And now, already, she’s leaving the guy. She’s already made him move to some apartment. All that, and for nothing.

She better not be thinking she can come back here. He answered the letter, told her what she needs to do. Not that she listens to him. Faye always knows better. He slams both hands to the desk. He pushes to his feet. The chair tips and bangs into the closet door.

Leaning forward, he squints at the letter. Everything’s gone double. His sleeve catches the handle of the coffee cup, sends it flying, wetting his trousers. His right leg, the dry one, gives way. He sags toward it and tries to grab the edge of the desk, but his arm won’t do what he tells it. He sees the carpet approaching—the one Faye couldn’t live without when they were in Turkey. There’s a coffee stain the size of Texas.

He knows exactly what’s happening. The same thing as four years ago, and he can’t do it again, he can’t. Hospitals, bedpans, walkers, people heaving him around like a butchered pig. He just got rid of the call-for-help gadget Faye made him hang around his neck when she left. Silly to pay for it month after month and never use it. Maybe this is one of those little strokes. The carpet needs cleaning. He hasn’t paid the light bill. Everything’s a blur, and then there’s nothing.

He wakes to an astonishing lack of pain. His back, his gut, his knees, even his teeth. He’s born again. Well, not that. He opens and closes his hands. He grabs his shoulders, bounces in place, punches the air like a boxer. Like that ad on the backs of comic books. Tired of being a 97-pound weakling? He’s Charles Atlas.

He sees the old man on the floor, white hair, pink scalp, legs tangled in the rungs of the chair. He recognizes the rucked-up pants, recognizes himself. His maroon-striped tie, flung over one shoulder like he’s running to catch the bus. He’s up here, but he’s down there too. That’s impossible.

Faye would know what to do. Think. He needs to sort out those legs, get to the phone. Then it’s happened—somehow he’s back in his body. His head feels like there’s an axe in it. He can’t move, can’t think. As quickly, he’s back out. Man-oh-man, that’s not the answer.

The doorbell rings. It’s Merle. Swell, there’s two of you, and neither one can answer the door. He waits. The bell again, this time with knocking, and then, eventually, the key in the lock. Merle calls, soft at first and then louder. He stamps his boots on the mat inside the front door. His voice works its way down the hall, inquiring at every room, getting closer, but sounding less and less sure. He gets to the bedroom, the end of the line, knocks, pushes the door open. The room fills with the smell of winter. Merle sees, comes over, kneels.

“Aw, Art.” A crust of snow falls from Merle’s collar, landing on the tweed trousers. He moves to brush it off, but doesn’t. His hand lingers, trembles—fingers with blunt-cropped nails outstretched but not touching. He straightens up on his knees. Maybe he’s praying. Then he stands, hitches up his pants, and goes for the phone.

Better than lying on the floor for a week, but Christ almighty. He’s glad he doesn’t have to say anything. He watches Merle call 911. Watches him circle the room, touching things, Art’s Knights of Columbus sword, his Peterson Guide to Freshwater Fishes, the folded-to-size crossword puzzle from yesterday’s paper—all the while glancing at the scene on the floor—until the doorbell rings, and he can rush down the hall to let in the EMTs.

7:20. Responded Code 3 to 1575 Elm Dr. on possible CVA. 7:25. Arrived at pt. side, found right lateral recumbent in bedroom, unconscious.

He’s alone. His body’s been wrapped and strapped and shipped off to somewhere. Merle’s gone. Everybody’s gone. Except he’s still here, and he has no idea what’s supposed to happen next. Maybe this is the beginning of forever. Maybe the church is wrong. Maybe you die and spend eternity in your empty bedroom. The snowplow grinds past again, going the other way. Snow ticks on the window. No. He’s not dead—the EMTs found breath, found a heartbeat.

He thinks of Faye. She always has the answer, whether you like it or not, and usually you don’t. It’s her fault he’s alone. She’s supposed to be here for things like this. He reaches for the phone and isn’t surprised when the black plastic fails to catch his hand. It’s early in California, but he thinks about how she never can sleep and gets up way before it’s light and sits in her robe drinking tea before she makes breakfast or even reads the paper that she’s made sure is right there. Doing nothing. He would arrive in the kitchen, showered and dressed and ready for some French toast, some crisp bacon, and she’d be staring at the wall. Drove him nuts.

And then, there she is. Somehow he’s managed to get to her. She looks so young. She’s in her yellow kitchen next to a still-black window with the streetlight outside and cars parked at the curb. She’s holding the cup he bought for her in Orvieto, with the sleepy-eyed bella donna painted in the bottom. Faye’s blue eyes, electric, even though the rest of her is in no hurry, deepening lines from how she sets her mouth when she’s working at something.

This is where she lived with Cole. Art looks for signs of him, sees things of hers he recognizes, but nothing belonging to a husband. Well, he’s moved out now. Art jingles the change in his pocket. He’s done it. He’s here. He’s still in the game.

The house begins to groan. Faye’s body responds before her mind. Her perceptions and her thoughts are more real to him than his own—compensation for what he’s lost, maybe. He hears what she hears, sees what she sees, knows what she thinks.

What’s under jolts and grinds. Sinners in the hands of an angry God. Her mind finally names it an earthquake, and decides it’s just another little one, though her body’s not so sure. The teacup rattles in its saucer, tea splashing everywhere. The shaking ends. She dumps tea from the saucer into the cup, carries both to the sink. She wads the sodden newspaper into the garbage and thinks about how he, Art, would spread out every sheet to dry.

Art slides into the seat opposite her. Of course he would dry the paper. A waste not to use what you’ve paid for. But that’s not why he’s here. He speaks in a low careful voice, knowing it’s going to be a shock, him turning up in her kitchen like this. “Faye, I had to come see you.”

She gets up and fills the kettle to make more hot water, gets the teabag from the one of those little dishes she’s always saving them in, wraps her robe tighter, sits.

7:35. Oral airway, type 5, no gag reflex, atrial fib, unresponsive, Glasgow E1. 7:42. Sacred Heart Hospital notified. 7:46. Arrived at destination.

Airway inserted, IV started, oxygen, cardiac monitor, screaming approach to the emergency entrance. That’s the ticket. Unlike Faye’s disappointing response, the action here thrills Art. It’s better than TV. He’s getting the hang of getting from one place to another. He follows himself through swishing doors into an eruption of noise and movement, his body on a table in a bright room, people examining and measuring, priests in the hallways.

Dr. Iris Fisk enters the room, and the crowd lets her through. The tiny woman has a fondness for the color of her name, and several shades of it show under her white coat. She’s doctored Art since the beginning of her practice, when both of them were too young to know much of anything. He feasts on her affection, her concern.

7:50. Admit ER, pt. unresponsive. 8:20. Warm fluids infused into bladder, immediate return noted, abnormal ECG. 8:48. Dr. Fisk w/ pt.

When he comes back, Faye is in her living room, sitting forward on the edge of the couch, toes tucked, hands on her knees, watching a piece of paper on the floor as if she expects it to make a sudden and lethal attack. It’s Art’s reply to her letter, and he remembers every word of it.

He wrote that marriage is the willing agreement of a man and a woman to live together until death, and that divorce is a violation of God’s law. Divorcing once is shocking, he told her. Doing it again, worse. Marriage requires sacrifice and discipline, qualities she seems to be lacking.

He had composed draft after draft, wondering why she wrote to him, what return she expected. He’d said he wasn’t thrilled when she left him, but now she is married to Cole, in sickness and in health. She knows the vows she’s taken. Vows. He told her she needs to go back to Cole, to apologize for her careless disregard, to ask for forgiveness and a chance to make it right.

He watches Faye pick up the letter and crease its folds again and again between thumbnail and forefinger before dropping it back to the floor. She’s suffering, and he’s glad. Maybe she’ll do the right thing. Fat chance. Faye has always been her own church with beliefs and behaviors that change from one day to the next. Their wedding almost didn’t happen.

They were children. He’d have done almost anything to marry her. He swallowed his disapproval of her nightclubby friends and the way she wore her skirts. He made allowances. But marriage is marriage. She wanted a wedding in Ewing Park among the lilacs with bouquets of sunflowers and ribbons looping in the wind. He was patient. He told her that Catholics don’t marry outdoors. He took her to meet with the priest. She wasn’t happy, but she agreed. She even went to Mass with him for a while, but she complained about the sermons, said the priests made her feel guilty and angry. She stopped going, and he gave sermons of his own. He supposed that was why she took up with Cole.

He watches her carry the phone to the other end of the couch, the end away from the letter. She’s thinking she needs to talk to someone. That she’ll even risk a shouting match with Cole.

A good scolding could solve everything.

Cole doesn’t scold. He says he’s getting the bed set up in his apartment. He says he forgot his skis in the furnace room, and he’s going up to Tahoe this weekend. He’ll call before he comes by. She’s fine with that. She tells Cole about the letter she wrote to Art and the one she got in return. “He was really upset. He went on about God’s laws and discipline and sacrifice.”

“He’s an old guy, Faye. Give him a break.”

Art is annoyed. Old guy. He’s barely fifteen years older than Faye.

“I don’t want him to hate me.”

“Faye, you’re not married to him any more.”

“I know, okay. Forget it. It’s Sunday, and I’m supposed to call him. We can’t talk about the letter, and what else is there?”

“You do not have to call him, but I know you will. My advice is pretend the letter never arrived. You know he’s not going to bring it up.”

Sometimes Cole is brilliant. Faye walks over and stands by the page, pushes at it with the toe of her sock. “But what if…”

“Hold on, I’ve got somebody at the door.” Cole covers the phone, shouts something she can’t understand. “Call you back.” He’s gone.

Art needs to explain. He needs to shout. They are mocking things they know nothing about that are fine and true and holy and ancient.

Faye stoops to pick up the letter—it’s only a piece of paper. This divorce with Cole will be one of the civilized ones—a clean-cut, no-strings, no-regrets parting of two adults. She’s sorry Art doesn’t get that. He must have suffered when she tried to debate his beliefs, before she decided it was better to avoid them. They do better talking about other things.

Art longs to set her straight.

She smooths the letter open, fingers one corner like a page in a romance novel. On it are the same dear blocky letters as on his every-year homemade Valentines, except since his stroke the words trip and lurch from one side of the paper to the other. If she’d stayed with Art, she wouldn’t be in this fix. Cole is no prize. She’s made a mess. She longs for penance and absolution.

Art supposes he should be touched by her affection, but she’s got to understand that marriage is not something you put on and take off like a pair of shoes.

She wraps her hands around her shoulders and bows forward like she’s praying or crying. What she always feared about Art was that he loved the church more than he loved her.

Ridiculous. Even she must know you can’t love anybody more than God.

She wonders if Art is right. Maybe she has to give Cole another chance. She tries to jam the letter back in its envelope, can’t, drops it on her desk. No. Cole used up all his chances. She remembers how he swore each affair was the last, and how, eventually, there would be lipstick or matchbooks or some other trite thing, and here would come doubt and accusations and lies and evidence and blame and promises all over again. No way to tell Art about that. No point.

No point. Art goes to the window. He sees day’s first light, winter-golden, waking strings of tiny houses that wrap the hills toward the Pacific, other lives, other disgraces. Cole is unfaithful. Shocking. Disgusting. Unforgivable. A man learns to manage that kind of temptation.

He remembers, a long time ago, an argument when Faye went to her mother’s. At the office, Sally was comforting. One thing led to another. He shoves the memory away, but it won’t stay put. Okay, he’s not perfect. This is different.

9:40. CT scan shows massive cerebral hemorrhage. 9:55. Prognosis very poor for any functional neuro recovery, breathing per ventilator, pulse irregular.

*

Faye has emptied the dishwasher and vacuumed the cat hair off the furniture. She’s reorganized the utensil drawer. She’s put off calling Art as long as she can. If she doesn’t mention the letter, he will know she’s avoiding it. It has to be done. She takes the phone to the couch. Sets the letter beside her. Punches the number. Do both phones ring at the same time? She’s always wondered.

Art’s machine picks up. She’s relieved. This will be easier. His imperious message. Funny, sweet, self-important Arthur. He should be back from church by now. Is he okay?

Art feels he should do something, but can’t think what. Maybe if he goes to the other end of the call. He knows how to do that now, get from here to there. Standing then, by the phone in his bedroom, he hears Faye leave a message. He looks at his watch, a useless habit. He sees his Knights of Columbus sword on the wall and remembers the sound, the sweep, the joy, of drawing it from its scabbard.

The Boy’s King Arthur had seeded a fascination he never outgrew. Knightly virtues, fair maidens. He dated a girl named Gwen once in high school, but she took up with the president of the debate team. He did find Merle. The old book is down the hall, but he doesn’t care enough to go find it. The house feels different, like it belongs to somebody else. Wind makes slow-shifting patterns on the snow outside the window.

10:00. Pulse 86, BP 128/84. 10:50. Pulse 95, BP 81/57.

Faye is pulling turtlenecks out of the dryer, when she hears the phone. Certain it is Art, she hurries up the stairs.

“Faye? This is Iris Fisk, calling from Des Moines.”

“Of course.” Faye reaches for a pen and pulls a sheet of used-on-one-side paper from the ragged pile on the shelf. Changes her mind and reaches for a clean page. She knows.

“I’m calling about Art. His file still has your name as the one to notify, and I’m afraid I have bad news.” Iris talks details at length. Doctors must be taught to do that to give people time. Faye thinks about whether she left the dryer door open—she needs to remember to check for the cat. And what’s Cole doing all this time? And where is Art? No, that’s what Iris is telling her. Pay attention. She takes notes. Iris tells her that if she wants to see him before he dies, come now.

Art looks at the words on Faye’s page. Massive stroke—significant brain damage—ventilator—Sacred Heart, sixth floor, Room Nine. Some words have boxes drawn around them. Some have multiple boxes. She’s drawn little circles at their corners and doodled connecting wavy lines and dots. It’s a work of art, a work of Art, Mortality in Blue. It seems he’s dying. Well then.

Her cheeks are wet. She feels nothing. She tries to see him on the floor—wonders if he was there long. Wonders about pain and fear. Blames herself that he was alone. She was his wife. She needs to go. Does she have a dress for the funeral? Navy blue versus black. Dress versus pants. Get a plane ticket. Reserve a car. She will stay at the house. Her old house. She has the key somewhere. Two days? Maybe longer. He will look shocking. Maybe she will be there when he dies. Maybe she will be the one who has to decide to make it happen. Maybe he will recover. No way. The funeral. The people she used to know. She will be Faye, the ex-wife, the one who left him.

Art is glad she knows—glad she realizes she should have been with him and feels responsibility for what she’s done and what she’s failed to do. He imagines her at his funeral, her tardy tears of regret. What does he know about her really? Sometimes he wonders if the reason they never had children involves birth control or even abortion. Faye always had her secrets. When you wander off the path, you get caught in the brambles.

11:00. Ex-wife notified. 11:14. Pulse 102, BP 122/100. 11:35. Pulse 90, BP 64/42. 12:18. Pulse 66, BP 128/82.

The phone again. It’s Cole. “Sorry, it was the cable guy. You feeling any better?”

“Cole, Art is dying. I tried to call him at home, and there was no answer. I should have known. He’s had another stroke. Our old doctor called from the hospital.”

“Sorry.”

“You keep saying that.”

“What do you want me to say?”

“Someone I love is dying.”

Silence. “That’s the problem isn’t it, my dear?” He makes “dear” a dirty word. “It’s why I’m down here in the Walnut Towers messing with my cable set-up instead of living in my own house. I have to say I’m up to here with how much you love your first husband. Art this and Art that and sending each other birthday cards, and I probably don’t know the half of it. I fucking married you, not him. Fine, go for it. He’s all yours.” The line goes dead.

Art jams his hands in his pockets, fingers his jingling change, strides down the hall to the kitchen, stands at the window looking out. A guy with a briefcase gets into a BMW and starts the engine. So Cole is jealous. Of him. He chuckles. He jingles.

Forget Cole. Faye starts a list. She calls her assistant, asks her to get a flight and a car reservation, tells her what meetings to cancel. What else? The obituary.

She’s known this was coming, and she’s prepared. She pulls a folder to her desk. The first page is done by hand with accompanying boxes and wavy lines like her notes from the call with Iris. It’s a list of Art’s origins and accomplishments. The next page is the completed obituary. After that, a photo. She shot it herself the time Cole thought she was in Chicago on business. She picks up the photo in both hands. Art looks like he’s just told one of his jokes.

Art likes it too. You rarely like photos of yourself. He’s wearing his favorite beret, and there’s snow falling on the black of it. Faye took it, out in the driveway, with him leaning on the door of the Lincoln, one knee cocked, head back, laughing. More than anything, he wants her to see him, to know he’s with her in the room, right now. He wants her to look at him the way she’s looking at the photo.

It feels to her like more than a photo. It feels like he’s here. She wants to know he isn’t afraid. She wants to think some angel has taken him in hand and is leading him in some happy direction.

His eyes fill. She loves him. Imagine that.

12:35. Pulse 141, resp 14, BP 80/100. 13:05. Pulse 131, resp 11, BP 132/87. 13:35. Pulse 84, resp 9, BP 97/70.

“Through the holy mysteries of our redemption, may Almighty God release you from all punishments in this life and in the life to come.” Father Larry stands beside the bed in Room Nine, his black canvas bag next to the patient’s legs. Merle’s up out of his chair. Has been since the priest appeared at the door.

Art admires the scene. The room is tidy and efficient, wheezing, humming, pumping, measuring, beeping, numerical and graphic updates, hoses, tubes, loops and coils. “May he open to you the gates of paradise and welcome you to everlasting joy.” The priest’s dangling plastic ID badge catches on the bedrail, and he frees it. Art watches himself being anointed.

It’s happening. He’s not afraid, but he’s unsure. He hopes for Faye’s angel, but maybe that’s a childish dream. Perhaps there’s nothing. Or worse than nothing. He needs to believe. He needs to say what he’s said every night since he was seven, part of his nightly routine, after teeth and before sleep. “I believe in God, the Father Almighty…”

13:40. Anointing of Sick, Fr. Ferris. 13:51. HR 44, A 37, BP no reading. Code blue called, removed from ventilator, begin CPR. 13:57. HR 99, A 0, BP no reading, code stopped, asystole rhythm. Death pronounced by Dr. Fisk.

Art misses the drama. Instead he’s spinning, revolving in wide arcs, spiraling upwards like Dorothy’s Kansas tornado, but no winds, no wreckage. No heavenly choir and no hellfire. He feels unprepared. Perhaps he should pray, send out a sort of beacon for whoever’s supposed to be meeting him, the messenger angel. He imagines the angel rowing a lifeboat through heavy seas.

“Hail Mary, full of grace,” he begins. He’s still revolving. No lifeboat. His left shoe drops from his foot. “The Lord is with thee.” His watch shatters, and his pockets empty, releasing a galaxy of coins including the New York subway token Faye made him keep that time. “Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.” His clothing lifts into an inflating balloon. “Holy Mary, mother of God.” No more whirling. His body is gone. “Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of death.” He is only awareness. No fear, no sadness, no thoughts, no Faye.

Night Forest by Lydia Copeland Gwyn

Night Forest by Lydia Copeland Gwyn

Fiction, Vol. 7.4, Dec. 2013 Day clocks ticked in my grandparents’ living room. I hovered by the window moving in and out of the blue sheers. I knew not to look in your room. It was just a bed, some furniture, some clothes. I had […]

Honey as Blood by Jessica Bryant Klagmann

Honey as Blood by Jessica Bryant Klagmann

Fiction, Vol. 7.4, Dec. 2013 He tells himself he is not, but he is waiting. Ten years and everything he has done since he heard she was back—everything—has been to keep his hands busy. Because when his hands are busy, his mind is busy. And […]

The Birthday Cake by Mary Julia Klimenko

The Birthday Cake by Mary Julia Klimenko

Fiction, Vol. 7.4, Dec. 2013

Julia Pearl went to the baby shower because she knew it was expected. She’d received an invitation in the mail and wished she hadn’t opened it. Then again, not opening it would have made her a bad person just as much as not going to the baby shower. When it wasn’t a family gathering, her family avoided her as much as they could. She knew they looked at Caller ID when she called, and they didn’t answer because she probably needed something like changing a light bulb she couldn’t reach, even when she was standing on a kitchen chair. She knew they thought calling for anything was unreasonable. Sometimes she thought about stacking her kitchen footstool on top of the kitchen chair just so she wouldn’t bother her brothers. Her father was dead. He was probably glad he got away from her neediness. It wasn’t her fault light bulbs burned out in light fixtures so high she couldn’t reach them. She knew that was a lie. It was her fault. Everything was her fault.

She was one hour late for the baby shower. She thought about what kind of an excuse she could give if the shower was over when she got there. She thought about what kind of problem would allow her to be cavalier and announce that she’d had this, that, or the other problem but that she really wanted to come by and leave the present anyway. She thought that would look better than just showing up for a shower that had already taken place, present in hand, ready to smile and act normal—or act like the rest of her family, since they really weren’t normal. At least she didn’t think they were.

Everyone in her family smiled and had things to talk about when they gathered, sitting around on plastic folding chairs in one of their backyards, a big metal tub on the patio always full of ice with beer and soda stuck in it. Everyone set up a buffet table with plates, bowls, and platters of food, which everyone crowded around when it was time to eat. They reminded her of the cows at her great-grandmother’s ranch. When she was a child, she’d stand on the bottom rail of the corral that opened at the other side to what seemed like a mile of pasture grass and clover, her elbows resting on the top railing, watching the cows suddenly lift up their collective heads and begin herding themselves toward the milking house as if someone rang a bell or sounded an alarm. It was like that at the buffet table too. No one told anyone it was time to eat. Suddenly chairs got pushed back and paper plates picked up, her family circling the table, filling plates with potato salad or macaroni salad or both, deviled eggs, tossed green salad, and whatever else there was. Everyone was required to bring something to share—lasagna, chicken wings, Jell-O salad, whatever they thought would be good.

Julia Pearl thought it was strange that no one ever suggested the potato salad might be poisoned, since it had been on the table for three hours, cooled only by a patio umbrella, and that no one ever suggested that the person making deviled eggs should make enough so everyone could have at least one half of an egg. Instead they just stampeded straight for the deviled eggs, first come first served, and mounded their plates with everything else. She knew she wasn’t going to eat anything but dessert because cookies don’t go bad, and her family wouldn’t think she was a picky eater.

Her family thought she was weird. Sometimes she worried that her therapist had lied to her and she really was weird, as in outcast kind of weird. Other times she thought her family just wasn’t normal like the families she saw on TV. Her family wasn’t normal because a normal family wouldn’t keep getting the stomach flu in August without wondering if maybe the salads and eggs should be put on ice if they were going to sit on a hot table until it was time to eat. A normal family wouldn’t gather to talk about nothing while they ate food going bad and, when leaving, exclaim what a good time they’d had, that they’d have to do it again real soon, not to let so much time go by.

Julia Pearl thought it was normal not to touch potentially poisonous food and to never gather again for any reason unless it was their mother’s funeral, in which case a gathering would be required. She wanted to drive by the house where the baby shower was being held, roll down her window, and throw the present out the window and onto the lawn so she didn’t have to smile when she didn’t feel like smiling, and she wouldn’t have to listen to her brother explain to her, with that look on his face that said he was being kind to an idiot, that she should buy a new car, not a used car. Then he’d justify his position by telling her some mathematical formula she couldn’t follow. Or to have to smile when someone’s gigantic dog put his head in her lap, making loud, snuffling noises while its owner smiled, exclaiming that Jake, King, Bull, or another big-man name was such a friendly dog while Julia Pearl resisted the impulse to crash her Diet Coke can into the monster’s skull.

Julia Pearl didn’t understand baby showers. She knew it wasn’t normal to sit with a clothespin hooked onto your hem, trying not to cross your legs to keep someone from taking your clothespin. The last person, the one with all of the clothespins, won a prize, and it was always something that no one ever really used, like bath salts. Julia Pearl thought it would be good if she won and they gave her some note paper with a snarling dog on it. At least it would match some feeling in her she knew she kept pushing down and pushing down. She didn’t like the game where tiny diapers were handed out with different kinds of candy bars melted in them and each person had to identify the candy bars by tasting the melted mess. The one who correctly identified the most candy won a prize. There was just something about tasting anything out of a baby diaper that she couldn’t deal with. She knew it wasn’t normal to listen to everyone exclaim about the wonderful cake Mrs. X had made while Julia Pearl was trying to saw into the frosting with the side of her plastic fork, wondering if she should even be eating it. I mean if she couldn’t cut it, should she be swallowing it?

On the other hand, Julia Pearl thought, it was better to have a family than not, so she obeyed some family laws, like attending family gatherings, bringing a dish to share, figuring out something to talk about like the weather or, well, what else was there to talk about in those situations except the weather, unless she wanted to argue the merits of buying a new car or a used car with her brother, who wouldn’t be listening to her anyway because he already knew all of the answers and she didn’t. That’s what she hated about being a girl. She automatically didn’t know any right answers, and her dumb brothers always knew all of the right answers even when they were wrong. She just kept her mouth shut. It wasn’t worth it.

Julia Pearl was grateful to have a family because she didn’t have anyone else except her dog, and she worried all of the time that her dog was going to die and then she would be all alone, or she would adopt a dog that chewed everything up and peed on the floor and wouldn’t look lovingly at her like her dog. She had a formula for her dog in case her dog got cancer or hit by a car or something like that. If the vet said her dog had a fifty percent chance of survival, then she would pay to have the dog treated. If the vet said there was less than a fifty percent chance her dog would survive, she would have the dog put down immediately, before she could get all emotional and weepy and then lose her courage and wind up having a vet bill the size of a down payment on a house, which she didn’t have—a house, that is.

After the baby shower Julia Pearl took the long way home along country roads instead of through town. It was sunny and summer, her favorite season. She looked at all of the mansions on the hills and the vineyards sloping down from them all the way to the road and their individual iron gates. She thought about couples living in those mansions, sitting together on the couch, watching a big-screen TV in a room called a screening room or a movie room because that’s what rich people have that poor people don’t have. Poor people sit wherever the TV is—kitchen, living room, bedroom, wherever. She knew rich husbands bought their wives gold jewelry for no reason, and the wives grew beautiful, scented roses that the gardener took care of until it was time to cut them and arrange beautiful, fragrant bouquets in all of the main rooms and the bedrooms. She knew they slept on linen sheets with ten thousand thread count, the covers carefully folded back so they could feel the gentle night breeze coming from open windows as they held each other and slept.

Julia Pearl knew she was too old to even hope that a man with half a brain and a real job would want her. She knew that a rich man wasn’t anywhere in her future and really never had been because people stay in the social class they are born into. Julia Pearl was born into the middle class, which had been wiped out, so now she guessed she must belong to the lower class.

Then she decided to go to Costco to order her mother’s birthday cake for her mother’s birthday party at her other brother’s house the next Saturday. She cracked each window in her car just a little so her dog wouldn’t die while she was inside the huge warehouse ordering cake. It was always her job to order the cake unless someone volunteered to make a special one, which they hadn’t. She pulled out her membership card and turned it so the lady at the entrance could see that it had her picture on it because anyone could use anyone’s Costco card as long as the picture matched the face of the person carrying the card. Julia Pearl always obeyed the rules, right down to making sure she showed the lady at the door that her Costco card was actually her card. The lady at the door was uninterested and waved her in even though Julia Pearl tried to show her that she was doing the right thing and not cheating.

Julia Pearl grabbed a giant shopping cart, not because she was going to buy anything, because she wasn’t, but to hold her purse. She buckled the child’s seat belt through the straps of her purse so a purse snatcher couldn’t steal it and pushed her cart past big-screen TVs and wondered where the TVs were that went into the screening rooms of rich people and decided rich people probably didn’t shop at Costco.

The bakery was all the way at the back of the store. Julia Pearl pushed her cart past the things other people bought. There was a shiny, red, enamel blender and a hot tub that seated seven people; she’d stopped and counted. She’d rented an apartment so it didn’t much matter, but there was still a little tiny bit of her heart that hurt, knowing she would never own a red, enamel blender because everything in her kitchen would always be rental white, and she would never own a hot tub because she would never own a yard to put it in because she would never have a husband like the men who were pushing the big carts while their wives flitted through socks and DVDs and fresh salmon. Husbands took care of yards and hot tubs. Husbands had jobs that paid enough money to afford hot tubs.

Even the fat and ugly women doing their shopping had husbands who listened and talked to them and didn’t look one bit bored. Julia Pearl wondered what it would be like to have a husband. She didn’t know. She just had a dog.

At the bakery department she went right up to the cake-ordering kiosk, where she took a blank order form and then looked at the cake designs up on the wall. Each one had a little sign about it that said the cake served forty-eight people, so why did they have to have the same sign over each design? Why didn’t they just have one sign that said that the cakes serve forty-eight people? Julia Pearl suspected someone not so bright made the signs or they would have seen the obvious. She got her blue ink pen out of her purse and studied the cakes. She remembered that she’d ordered white cake the last time because she thought most people preferred white cake, and then a lot of them told her they liked chocolate cake and she realized she’d never paid attention to what they liked when it came to white cake or chocolate cake. Shouldn’t it be vanilla cake or chocolate cake or white cake and brown cake? Saying white cake and chocolate cake was mixing something up.

Julia Pearl studied the designs, trying to figure out which one her mother would like and which one would be the most clever and attractive to the other women in the family. Since she wasn’t going to make the cake from scratch or even from a box, it was important to make the cake look like it was something special and not a cake from a warehouse store. She was sure the cake with the golf clubs on it wasn’t the right one because her mother had never played a game of golf. The one with the baby carriage on it was for, well, baby showers. Out of fifteen choices, Julia Pearl decided it was between the cake with confetti and different colored balloons on it and the cake with a smiling sun and a bouquet of smiling flowers on it.

She stood there while the couples shopped around her. This was her Saturday night. She could take all the time she wanted. She looked back and forth from one cake design to the other. She imagined it sitting in the center of the buffet table and was glad that the frosting and filling were made out of lard so it wouldn’t go bad in the sun. The bakery wouldn’t dare put “lard” as the description for the frosting so they put “butter cream” instead. There wasn’t any butter or cream in the frosting. Julia Pearl knew that because she’d already read the ingredients. She finally decided that the smiling sun cake was a bit more unique than the balloon confetti cake so she filled out her form, writing down her name and phone number and what day and time she was going to pick up the cake.

Julia Pearl tried to figure out just how late she could pick up the cake and get to her mother’s birthday party without making herself look insensitive to their mother but allowing her to avoid most of the chit-chat and having to watch her family consume mounds of macaroni salad, potato salad, deviled eggs, and canned ham. Just thinking about it made her stomach ache. She decided to pick up the cake fifteen minutes before the party started, which would make her about thirty minutes late, which was nothing since there weren’t going to be any clothespin games or present opening where everyone had to watch and “oooh” and “aaaah” over each gift like at a baby shower.

When she was finished Julia Pearl dropped her order paper into the slot and began pushing her purse in the cart back up to the store entrance. She still had quite a few hours left before she could go to bed and have Saturday be over, but at least she had accomplished something; at least she had ordered her mother’s birthday cake, and that was something because she wouldn’t have to do it at the last minute, and she didn’t think her family had ever had a birthday cake with a smiling sun on it.

Her dog was a little hot but still breathing when she got back to her car. She would have told him about choosing the smiling sun birthday cake but she thought someone might see her and they would feel sorry for her, an old lady talking to her dog. She straightened her already rounding shoulders and drove.

Julia Pearl didn’t want to live like this. It was never a choice. It was like her life had unfolded in front of her and was as flat as Kansas. Here she was on Saturday evening doing what she always did. She was feeling sorry for herself and not doing anything about it.

Sure, she could run over the fat man who had just pushed his fat cart right in front of her so he could cut across to his car. It would feel good until she had to deal with blood and policemen and probably some sobbing wife who couldn’t imagine a Saturday night without the two of them sitting in their matching recliners, sharing a beer and a box of Cheez-Its while they watched an episode of True Crime together.

She could feel her breath stuck in her chest, a knot that wanted untying, something that wanted out. She didn’t know what to do. She wondered what other lonely women did.

She saw the neon cocktail glass on the top of what looked like a shack right in the middle of the industrial district. The glass had a girl sitting in it, her legs scissoring over the lip of the glass as if to suggest something fun. She realized the shack was a bar and the girl draped in and out of the cocktail glass suggested a good time waited inside, the neon winking off and on so the girl in the glass was there and not there and there again.

Julia Pearl had always played by the rules and didn’t feel at all wild like a woman who could sit in a cocktail glass and wink on and off. She pulled her car into the dirt parking lot and thought about what she was going to do. She was going to do something wild. No one would ever know and Julia Pearl felt like she had nothing to lose.

She wasn’t going to have a big screen TV or sheets with ten thousand thread count or a devoted husband who was a doctor or a lawyer.

She sat there in her car, her dog watching her as if he expected something was different or going to be different, and she knew she was going to at least try to be a little wild, maybe meet a man, maybe even a man with decent teeth who didn’t drink a six pack of beer every night.

She flipped down the visor and looked at herself in the mirror. She saw a stringy woman who didn’t have a wild bone in her body. She thought that couldn’t be true. How could she dislike so much about her supposedly normal family if she wasn’t something else, someone less normal but not exactly weird—maybe wild, maybe something. She didn’t want to let herself think about it too long.

Julia Pearl reached up and pulled the rubber band from her hair, releasing the tight bun at the back of her head. She used her fingers to fluff it around her face and took a little can of hairspray out of her purse and sprayed her hair to keep it fluffy. She had noticed that young women nowadays didn’t appear to have hairdos as much as they just had fluffed up hair that looked like it hadn’t been combed. She thought she’d read somewhere that it was called “bed head.” She dug around in her purse and found an old tube of lipstick, pulled off the cap and cleaned the hair and bits of purse stuff off of the creamy, blue-red stick, and applied it generously to her lips, even making them a bit larger than they actually were and forming a “cupid’s bow,” a little half heart, in the middle of her upper lip. Then she took the lipstick and made two round dots, one on each cheek and rubbed and rubbed until her cheeks looked like pale pink apples.

She got out of her car and reached up under her blouse and rolled the waistband of her skirt up three times until her skirt was short and, she hoped, sexy-looking. Her heart was jumping like she imagined a rabbit’s heart jumped just before someone broke its neck for food.

Julia Pearl locked her car and marched up to the bar door and pushed. It swung inward and she stepped in. The room was dark but she could see the bar and see that mostly guys were sitting there with drinks in front of them. She walked toward the bar. She was committed. She wanted to turn around and run back out to her car and just leave but then the people sitting at the bar would think she was weird. She didn’t want to be weird. She wanted to be wild.

“There she is,” said one of the guys at the bar as they all swiveled around to see who had just come in. He wasn’t bad-looking, at least in the dark, thought  Julia Pearl as she walked over and sat on the bar stool next to him. He was smiling at her. She made herself smile back like she did this every day.

“Can I buy you a drink, pretty lady?” he asked.

“Sure,” she said, thinking that her brothers would probably call a woman “pretty lady” and think it was a compliment.

“What’ll it be?”

She said she’d have a glass of white wine since she thought that sounded more ladylike than beer. She tossed her head a little to show off her fluffy hair.

He ordered her a glass of white wine and the other guys went back to staring at the bar, drinks in front of them.

He told her his name was Darryl and asked her what her name was. “Pearl,” she said. “My name is Pearl.”

She thought Pearl sounded better than Julia Pearl, which in her mind sounded very much like the life she’d been living and not the life she wanted to live. He was nice, she thought. He was smiling at her and saying something while Julia Pearl thought about her next move. Would she kiss him if he tried? He would have to walk her to her car and then she might, she thought.

She was already beginning to like it here in the dark, where you could choose a name that suited you and anything could happen, anything at all except ordering birthday cake, worrying about balloons or flowers, white cake or chocolate.

My Hollywood Story by Patrick Nevins

My Hollywood Story by Patrick Nevins

Fiction, Vol. 7.4, Dec. 2013 I was in Clark County Correctional for armed robbery, and I was mixed up in armed robbery because I ran with the wrong types, and I ran with the wrong types because I was caught picking the pocket of someone […]