Writer Round-Up: A Collective Interview Wherein Writers We Like Discuss Topics Related to the Craft Dzanc Books Authors : Nathan Deuel, Jac Jemc, George Singleton Interview by Cynthia Reeser For Prick of the Spindle, Vol. 8.2, June 2014 ~ In this issue, the publisher spotlight […]
Month: June 2014
Interview by Stephanie Renae Johnson For Prick of the Spindle, Vol. 8.2, June 2014 Occasionally, I read short story collections with moments so heart-slapping, so eyes-closing, stomach-punching beautiful that I must share. There were several such moments in Ron Parsons’ collection of stories, The Sense […]
Drama, Vol. 8.2, June 2014
BUTCH, a nursing home resident in his eighties.
CLYDE, Butch’s friend and also a nursing home resident. He is in his late eighties and is confined to a wheelchair.
DIANE, a nursing supervisor in her early fifties.
TIME: Christmas Day, the present.
PLACE: The exterior of a nursing home, with a park bench near the entrance and some small trees planted on the adjacent lawn.
CLYDE sits outside in his wheelchair, and he wears a winter coat. He’s holding a lit cigarette, hiding it near the wheel of his chair so no one can see it. Every now and then, he pulls it up to his mouth and sneaks a puff. BUTCH walks outside. He also has a winter jacket on.
Hey, Clyde. Merry Christmas.
Not you too. Goddammit, if another person tells me Merry Christmas I’m gonna punch them in the face.
Oh, that’s all right. Sit down.
(BUTCH sits down on the bench. He then notices the cigarette burning near the wheel of CLYDE’s chair.)
Where’d you get that?
My grandson. He visited yesterday and used my bathroom.
So what, that doesn’t explain anything. How’d you get the cigarettes?
I could smell the smoke on him. When he went in the pisser, I searched his jacket and found the pack. You want one?
(CLYDE digs the pack out of his coat pocket. He pulls out a cigarette, lights it, and hands it to BUTCH. BUTCH places it in his mouth and takes a few puffs.)
I got something too.
(BUTCH pulls out a silver flask from the front pocket of his pants.)
How the fuck did you get that?
Joe, the night orderly. He’s putting his daughter through college. We have a deal. I slide him a little money and he hooks me up.
It’s a good arrangement. Here, try it.
(BUTCH hands the flask to CLYDE. CLYDE takes a swig and then coughs.)
(giving the flask back)
Jesus, what is that?
Just some whiskey.
Sure is, and I need it to be. Joe only gives me a little bit at a time. He’s worried about getting in trouble.
(BUTCH puts the flask in his pocket, while CLYDE takes a puff of his cigarette. Then, using one of his thumbs, CLYDE points behind him, toward the nursing home.)
So what are they doin’ in there now?
They’re playing music, opening presents, eating cookies. Same old shit.
Bunch of imbeciles. What do they have to be so happy about anyway? Half of them can’t tell you their name.
Poor bastards. It sucks getting old, huh?
Yeah, the Golden Years—what a bunch of bullshit that is. Count me the fuck out.
If I had known what old age was gonna be like, I think I would’ve drank more, gambled more, and maybe even slept around more. Yeah, and I would’ve eaten more bacon…and red meat.
What part would you have done too? Drinking, gambling, women, what?
Oh, all of it.
(BUTCH nods his head. The two men sit quietly, puffing on their cigarettes.)
Actually, in truth, I can’t say I would have done things much differently. I tried to be a good husband and father. I guess that’s all that counts anyway.
Right. Plus we didn’t know any better. We were stupid.
I guess we’re lucky our minds still work. That’s something to be thankful for.
Not me. I’m not thankful for anything. I’m old enough now, I can be as miserable as I want and no one can say a fuckin’ thing.
Well, nothing matters now anyway. Don’t you feel that…that all we’re doing now is waiting…you know, for the end?
I could care less. Screw it, let it happen. And the sooner the better.
What do you think it’ll be like?
Oh, I don’t know. It’ll probably feel like any other day here.
So you don’t think there’s anything else after?
Nah, I don’t buy that bullshit. Once you’re gone, you’re gone. That’s it. Lights out.
I guess I’m not sure. I wanna believe there’s something waiting for us, you know, on the other side. Otherwise, what have you got?
Nothing…but I think that’s all there is anyway.
I’m just not sure. I stopped going to church a long time ago, but I still believe in God. Part of me hopes there’s something more. But I really don’t know.
No one does.
It can’t hurt to hope, I say. If I’m wrong, I’m wrong and I won’t know any difference.
(BUTCH passes the flask to CLYDE, who takes a swig and hands the flask back. BUTCH puts it back in his pocket. CLYDE lights another cigarette and puts it in his mouth.)
You want another one?
Yeah, what the hell. It’s Christmas, we’ll go all the way.
(CLYDE lights another cigarette and gives it to BUTCH. They sit there quietly, smoking and staring ahead. DIANE walks outside, dressed in her nurse’s outfit and a fleece jacket. BUTCH and CLYDE try to hide their cigarettes, dangling them low. CLYDE stuffs the pack inside his jacket pocket.)
(now standing in front of them)
So this is where you guys are hiding. Don’t you know you’re supposed to be inside?
(DIANE stands erect, sniffs the air, and looks around. She realizes it’s cigarette smoke. She looks down and sees the cigarettes in the men’s hands.)
What are you doing with those? Put them out right now. You know better. What do you wanna do, get me fired?
Ah, what difference does it make? I’ll be dead soon.
It makes a lot of difference to me. You know you can’t smoke. And I’m responsible for you. Now put them out, and hand over the pack.
(BUTCH and CLYDE throw their cigarettes on the sidewalk)
We finished the pack.
I don’t believe you.
I still don’t believe you. One of you has it, and I’ll find it eventually. You have to go to sleep sometime.
Oh, all right.
(CLYDE grabs the pack and hands it to DIANE)
You used to be fun, Diane.
Yeah, not anymore.
Right, right, I know. But then I got stuck supervising you two pains.
(CLYDE nods his head)
(edging closer to the bench)
All right then, slide over Butch, make some room.
(BUTCH slides over on the bench and DIANE sits down next to him)
Now what’s the problem? Why aren’t you inside opening presents with the rest of ’em? We have gifts for you both.
Fuck that. I’m not interested.
Please don’t use that language, Clyde.
Sorry. I just don’t feel like celebrating Christmas and all that ho, ho, ho bull—all that stuff.
All right, I understand. But come inside anyway; I don’t want you guys getting sick… It’s freezing out here.
But the air’s a helluva lot cleaner.
Yeah, it doesn’t smell like piss and shit, like in there.
And Lysol spray.
(DIANE tries not to laugh but can’t help herself. She shakes her head.)
You two are a trip.
We have to have some fun.
OK, I get it. Now come on. Come inside, open your presents, have some hot chocolate and cookies. And then you can go to one of your rooms and gab all you want. Sound fair?
No, not really… But we don’t have much choice, I guess.
No. I’m afraid not.
(DIANE stands up and goes around to the back of CLYDE’s wheelchair. She releases the brake.)
I can do it myself.
I know you can. I just want to.
(DIANE starts to push CLYDE’s wheelchair on the sidewalk toward the entrance of the nursing home. BUTCH gets up and walks behind them. DIANE pushes the button to open the automatic doors, and all three go inside. The doors close behind them.)
Inquiries concerning performance rights should be addressed to the playwright at email@example.com.
Fiction, Vol. 8.2, June 2014 When Nicó plaited her pigtails, she drove a dry sprig of broomcorn sorghum, the kind that’s used to weave brooms, right into the heart of the snaky tresses behind her ears. “For mystery preservation,” she would say, and we all […]
Fiction, Vol. 8.2, June 2014
Manuel Ordero knew exactly the moment he fell in love with his brother’s wife. It was a Tuesday morning in May and he was sitting in the kitchen drinking café con leche and helping Josefa get the children ready for school. Seven stories below, in the streets of Seville, the heavy trucks threaded an impossible course over cobblestones and the cafes filled with the rattling of silverware and saucers. His 6-year-old nephew, Paquito, flung a foot into his lap and said, “Doble, por favor,” and Manuel complied, tying the laces in double knots.
Then he looked up and saw what would haunt him for months as he lay alone in the single bed in the guest room off the kitchen, saw what would make his American marriage and divorce, and even Amy herself, as insubstantial as a dust spider’s web and as easily brushed aside. Josefa stood by the window, brushing 8-year-old Rosa’s hair, fine hair like a dark river that fell almost to her waist. Josefa brushed and ran the other hand down the length of it behind the brush, smoothing and soothing the electric strands back into place. Then she turned the girl toward her and, solemnly, looking her in the eyes, tucked her hair behind each ear and bent her head to rest her forehead against her daughter’s. The girl smiled a little and whispered, “Gracias, Mama” and Josefa breathed, “Te quiero, hijita. Te adoro.”
“Te adoro.” He heard her whisper it all night in his sleep and woke imagining the sound of her breath in his ear.
When he’d talked to Amy about having children, she’d always say the same thing: “I love kids.” She’d say it wistfully, the way someone might say “I love New Zealand,” knowing it was so far away they’d never travel there. They talked about it often when they were first married, what they would name the baby if it were a boy or a girl, how they would teach the baby to speak both Spanish and English so he would learn, as Manuel had, to be fluent in both.
Manuel’s father, a Spanish diplomat who spoke seven languages, insisted that Manuel and Esteban speak to him only in Spanish, to their American mother only in English. They spent fall and winter months in Seville, spring and summer in the suburbs outside Philadelphia. But it was more than fluency, and Manuel had tried to explain it to Amy. “It’s like having two different ways to be, not two selves exactly, but two worlds to be yourself in.” She’d nodded like she was listening, leaning back against the pillows. Then she said, “I don’t want to give the baby a dumb Spanish name, though—no offense. But like your nephew’s name… In English it sounds like a beer snack—Paquito.” She crinkled her nose.
“It’s the nickname for Paco,” Manuel said.
“Paco’s worse. No names that rhyme with taco or burrito or any food, okay? Can we agree to that?”
They were lying in bed in the house on Jefferson Lane and Manuel had laughed out loud at the taco comment and rolled over to spoon the smooth golden length of her against him, her ass pressed into his groin, his face deep in her blonde hair. Sometimes when they lay together like this, he felt like her long body was a road that she moved along further and further away from him. He kept trying to catch up, to take her by the hand, but she was always just off in the distance, a figure retreating, getting smaller and smaller as she moved away.
Amy had been a model for awhile and a bit-part actress in LA. She’d start sentences with “In LA, we always” and “In LA, we never,” but she couldn’t stay there. She said it was the money, but Manuel believed that LA was a place one could only admire from afar, like a pointillist painting. The beauty came only with distance, up close it became a mass of meaningless dots. Sometimes she’d talk about “going back to the coast” and this panicked Manuel and he’d sit quietly, afraid that even his opposition would make the plan that much more real.
In the end, though, she didn’t leave him for a life in LA, or for another man, or for any reason at all that Manuel could bring himself to understand. “You’re just so boring,” she said. “You never want to do anything.”
“What do you want to do?” he said, his hands open, his feet spread like he was standing aboard ship, standing on a slippery deck in rough water. “Do you want to travel? We could go anywhere you want. It doesn’t have to be back to Spain. We could go to…Tibet, Trenton, Timbuktu. Anywhere.”
“You totally don’t get it,” she said. “I want you to want it. I want you to say you want to go somewhere or do something. You don’t want anything.”
“I want you,” he said, his arms falling to his sides. “I want you.”
“That isn’t even close to enough.” She was taking her pictures off the wall and pulling out the nails with a claw hammer. She wrapped the nails in their own small pieces of newspaper and taped them to the back of the frames. Manuel watched her do it but didn’t think about it until he sat alone staring at the blank, pocked walls and thought, everything, even the nails.
In the end, he’d sold the house on Jefferson Lane and left the development where all the streets were named after American presidents and there had been rules about what kind of flags you could fly and how long your lawn could get. He’d sold his business, too, a wholesale company for Spanish foods that kept the restaurants in Philly supplied with Serrano ham and Manchego cheese. Through the whole nine months during and after the divorce, he’d talked to his brother, Esteban, on the phone almost every day; first, of his plans to get Amy back, to make things right, and then—with increasing resignation, with tears and bitterness, in a chaotic mixture of Spanish and English—of his despair, of the darkness. Nine months of this.
“A gestation,” Esteban had called it, laughing a little, inviting him to laugh. And always, always, at the end of every conversation, Esteban said, “Manolito, ven aca. Come home. España es tu pais.”
Esteban was the only one who still called him Manolito, as though he were still little, a boy. When Manuel was fifteen, he had, as his mother said, “shot up like a weed,” growing four inches in one summer, growing so fast that his bones ached at night and nothing he owned fit. His mother said she could hear him growing and that he creaked and groaned like a house settling and kept her awake. At 5’10”, his mother was still the shortest woman in a family of tall, beautiful Swedish-Americans with even, Nordic features and wide, green eyes. Manuel inherited her angular face and height, but got his father’s coloring. Esteban, three years older, was his father’s son in every way—darker, shorter, and with a fierce love for his father’s country. When Manuel had made the decision to go to college in the US, his brother acted scandalized. “You have been in Spanish schools all your life. What can you learn there? Media studies and finance. Nothing at all of lasting value.” His brother studied at the University of Granada in the Collegio de Medicina, graduated with an MD, and set up a practice in geriatric medicine in Seville.
The brothers visited each other once a year and sent birthday cards with their usual joke: “It’s time for you to move home.”
So when he’d shipped or sold all that remained of his life and the day came to get on the plane—his thirty-fourth birthday—Manuel fastened the seat belt and looked out the window at the highways and the buildings getting smaller and smaller beneath him and couldn’t tell if he was leaving home or going home or both. But after just a few days in Seville, he was as shocked as anyone to discover that he didn’t miss the lawns and quiet suburbs, the expansive American space, or the scrupulous American time. He slid into the rhythm of the city, the music of his father’s language, the sweetness of his brother’s family like a warm pool. Mornings, for the first week or two, he’d have to take a moment to register where he was before he opened his eyes. He’d hear the rumble of the street below and the sound of the children’s voices and the TV cartoons and the first groggy question in his mind, “Where am I?” became “Estoy en Sevilla.” If the children were loud, Josefa would scold in a whisper, “Cállate. Tío Manuel despierta ya.”
“Quiero que se levante,” one of them would say. I want him to wake up. And there was nothing that pleased Manuel more than this, than their childish joy at his presence, the easy acceptance that adults never give. Afternoons, when the children came home from school, Paquito would squirm up into his lap without a word and sit with him in front of the TV. Manuel marveled at his small warm back, at how they would begin to breathe together until they were both asleep. Sometimes he’d dream the warmth he held was Amy and wake to find the boy; it did not make him unhappy. No one spoke of her here, not even the children, though they’d known her well enough after all the visits over the years. It was, Manuel knew, Esteban’s doing; he’d schooled them all in the silence.
After a couple of weeks, Manuel got a job tending bar and waiting tables in a little tourist place near the Cathedral on Calle Segovia; he just wanted to make enough to pay Esteban something for room and board. It was April—Feria time—and Seville swelled, people spilling out into the streets in the late afternoons, spontaneous bursts of hand clapping, singing, music, and the highest prices for everything Manuel had ever seen. Sometimes American tourists would remark on his perfect English and he would smile and say “I’m also American.” They always took his “also” to mean “like you” instead of “as well as Spanish” and they’d ask what state he was born in and often enough take a picture with him before leaving. They tipped well, embarrassingly well, and the Spaniard in him might have been insulted, but he was always grateful for the money, understanding that this was another American language.
When he didn’t work during the day, he walked around the city, rediscovering the places he’d always loved: the tile shops in Triana; Maria Luisa, the park named like a beautiful woman; the cafes on the river that made the best gazpacho in the world and served the soup in tall glasses with long spoons. In the afternoon, he’d wait for Josefa’s bus in the Arenal and go with her to meet the children or to pick up the ingredients for the cena. She worked as a nurse in a clinic and she’d tell him stories about the women who came in from the country, about their poverty and their ignorance, how she worried about their sick husbands and children. After he fell in love with her, those meetings took on a silver sheen for him, like the backlit love scenes from 1940’s movies. These few moments were the only time he had alone with her during the day, and he fantasized about what he might do, how he might make use of them. On hot days, she kept her hair pinned back in a loose bun and, Manuel walked beside her through the city streets and thought about pulling out the two sticks that held her hair back and pulling her into a doorway to steal one sweet kiss, or curling the escaping strands around one finger and whispering, “Sabes, no? Tu eres mi corozón, mi alma.” Do you know you are my heart and soul?
Sometimes he thought she did know. Sometimes she’d look him in the eye and smile slowly, an open, innocent smile that made Manuel’s stomach tense with longing. Sometimes she’d touch him, stand behind him and squeeze his shoulder as she was pouring his wine or putting food on the table, brush his hand with hers as she passed him the mail or the book he was reading. It was everything he could do to hold himself still.
She was quiet, like he was, but she watched everything. She loved to read and often they’d trade books. In the evening, sometimes, they’d leave Esteban watching the TV and both sit at the kitchen table with their books. Manuel would pretend to read until she was ignoring him and then watch her, watch as the emotions crossed her face, watch her breathing change as she moved through the imaginary world in front of her. If he’d read the book already, he’d try to guess where she was, what was happening, by the way her face changed.
Lying alone at night, he’d think about what life might be like if his brother were suddenly gone somehow. What if he left Josefa for another woman? Manuel imagined her pain and tears, imagined how he’d comfort her, how one night after the children were in bed, he would sit close beside her on the couch and tell her all that he’d felt for so long, how she’d hold herself rapt and silent beside him, letting the words place themselves in her heart. But sometimes his mind would wander another way—what if Esteban died? Then Manuel would see his brother’s face and he’d lay awake the rest of the night tortured with guilt and shame. He knew it couldn’t go on this way. He knew he had to leave. But in the morning, he’d awake to the sound of her singing quietly in the kitchen or find the bathroom already full of her soft soapy smell and he never made plans to move out.
Since he’d been living there, Josefa and Esteban had had two major fights, ones that ended in tears. His brother never bothered to whisper, no matter how often Josefa asked him to keep his voice down. “Por que? Es mi casa, no? Entonces, por que?” Manuel kept still in his room until long after he’d heard their bedroom door slam and the crying stop. It occurred to him that Esteban fought with her the same way he had fought with Manuel when they were boys, and that Josefa, like Manuel, eventually caved when his brother ratcheted up the anger, getting louder and red in the face, getting more and more articulate.
When he was angry, Manuel felt it physically; he wanted to punch something, smash something, but words seemed to vanish. Esteban was just the opposite; it was like someone turned on a tape player in his head and the words just kept coming. Josefa fought just like Manuel; she slammed doors, even smashed a plate on the tile floor once, but she never seemed to be able to find words and Manuel sympathized.
It wasn’t just the fighting either. Manuel sympathized when he watched his brother take her for granted. Esteban read the paper while she fixed meals, never asking if he could help, never even talking to her, or telling her about his day. His brother got impatient instantly if she wasn’t ready when he wanted to go somewhere and he’d begin asking over and over “Que haces?” What are you doing? Manuel tried to make up for it where he could. He at least offered to help when she cooked or cleaned, although she never accepted. He daydreamed about all the ways he could make her happy. All of them. He watched her move, playing with the children, lifting Paquito, her thin strong arms, the shadowed hollow above her collarbone as she bent down, long hair falling forward in her face. He pictured her straddling him, arms braced; he would lift his head to kiss the valleys above her collarbones, her hair curtaining both of them.
Then the guilt would pour back into him again and he could feel it burn down his throat and into his gut, as though he’d tipped a cup of acid into his mouth. He’d go for days trying not to look at her. He’d avoid her as much as he could, staying away from the house and, once or twice, not even waiting for her at the Arenal. Then he’d regret it, miss her desperately and give into it all again.
After Manuel had been living with his brother for seven months, “the conversations” started. This was how Manuel thought of them, as two prongs of a single attack meant to help him “get him back on his feet again.” Esteban always said it that way, and always in English. Manuel believed that he and Josefa had discussed it, had agreed to a strategy of nudging him back out of the nest and on with his life. It would start at night after Paquito and Rosa were in bed, Esteban would say “Listen, Manolito…” and Josefa would disappear and Esteban would begin the commercial for his new career.
“You could be a wholesaler again, just do it in the other direction. Paquito loves peanut butter, but do you know how hard it is to get here? I mean the real stuff, the stuff we grew up with: Jiff, Skippy. If you could bring in that stuff and get it to catch on, you’d be a rich man.”
Manuel would smile. “Do you want me to be rich so I can finally move out of your guest room?”
“That is not a guest room. It is your room and you should live there forever. Pero con mucho dinero!”
The second prong of the attack was much worse, though subtler and gentler. Some afternoons as they walked alone, the late summer warmth finally beginning to give way in October, Josefa would ask if there wasn’t some woman at the restaurant that he’d like to bring home for dinner. She always said it shyly, slanting her eyes up at him.
“Seguro hay,” she’d say. “Tiene que ser.” There must be.]
Manuel would make it into a joke, tell her that all of them were horribly ugly, “asquerosas!” Or that they thought of him that way, thought he was a horrible monster.
“No! No!” she’d say and slap his arm or push him playfully away.
“Claro, soy horrendo, monstruoso!” Manuel dropped his shoulder, crossed his eyes and dragged one leg. He kept it up like a boy on a playground to get her to hit him again. But she would always, eventually, grow quiet and say, “En serio, Manuel,” and deliver her commercial for the good woman out there who was looking for him, who he could love and who would love him entirely; maybe there’d be cousins for Rosa and Paco. He would think of Amy sometimes when she said it, knowing that Josefa thought his pain was all Amy’s fault, knowing she blamed Amy for never loving him enough to have his children. Sometimes it made him furious, furious at her for not seeing the truth, furious at himself for not telling, furious at Esteban for having found her first, furious at his parents for fluency, for giving him two worlds when one was more than enough to manage.
Then one day, when Josefa got off the bus, another woman descended right behind her and stood smiling uncomfortably. As Manuel walked toward them, she bent and whispered something in Josefa’s ear that made her giggle. Manuel felt instant antipathy and dread. He registered it all; this tall, awkward creature with the orangey lipstick and the sharp features was his sister-in-law’s offering of a good woman whom he could love entirely. He hated her already. She couldn’t have been less like Josefa physically, nothing soft about her, nothing dainty, all angles and edges.
Josefa did the introductions and Raimunda held out her hand. “Encatada,” she said, holding his eye, sizing him up.
Raimunda worked with Josefa at the clinic. She’d been divorced, “como tu,” Josefa said. So he knew that they’d discussed him and he imagined what that discussion must have been like. He lives in the guest room, a broken man, but nice and full of possibility. A fixer-upper, they’d call him in the States.
“Y ella habla ingles.” Josefa said it as though she were giving him a present, as though the fact that she spoke English made Raimunda the most desirable woman in Spain.
“I studied in the US for a year in high school,” Raimunda explained. “I lived with a family in Raleigh, North Carolina.”
“Really,” he said, nodding, “in the South. Really.” Oh God, he wanted more than anything else to escape. But she was coming to dinner.
“Muy bien,” he said, “Muy agradable.” Josefa tilted her head up and smiled at him. He looked down at her helplessly. Why couldn’t he have just the one hour alone with her? He looked over her head at Raimunda walking beside her. “Very nice,” he said.
Josefa decided to cook “a la Americana.” Big, greasy hamburgers sputtered and popped in one cast iron pan; in the other, slices of potatoes were deep frying in olive oil. “Hamburgers and French fries,” she said, smiling at her own American accent. “Okay, dude?”
Manuel burst out laughing. My God, she was adorable. Paquito ran in from the other room when he heard the laughter and began repeating “Okay, dude,” holding her hands and jumping up and down.
“Don’t look at me,” Esteban said, crossing one leg over the other, leaning back in the kitchen chair. “She learned it from the kids. Their English is all slang words and song titles. ‘Who Let the Dogs out?’ Mom would have been so disappointed.” He looked up at Raimunda, who was leaning against the counter drinking her wine. “Our mother was American.”
“Sí, Americana,” Manuel echoed, trying to steer them back into Spanish so that Josefa could understand. He stood in the far corner, watching the scene unfold, trying to avoid Raimunda’s eyes, which kept following him. Every time he looked up, there they were, their rims outlined in black pencil that she’d drawn out beyond the corners like Cleopatra, her big, orange earrings bobbing when she moved her head.
“What part of the country was she from?” Raimunda asked, still looking at him, speaking so loudly, like she really were American, in her strange hybrid accent, part Spanish and part North Carolina.
That was the way the conversation went all night. He’d switch to Spanish, but Raimunda would always drift back into English and Esteban didn’t seem to notice that this left out his wife. So rude, so goddamned rude, Manuel thought. Josefa caught his eye once and mouthed to him “no te preocupes,” but he did worry. He watched Josefa as she put together the children’s plates. Rosa and Paquito were thrilled, both that they got hamburgers and French fries and that they could eat in front of the TV. Manuel wished he could eat with them, snuggled on the couch. But the two couples ate in the dining room; Josefa had put out the good china and the linens like this nightmare was a state occasion, a diplomatic visit. She sat across from Manuel, Raimunda next to him.
“What do you miss most about the States,” Raimunda asked him, lifting the hamburger bun with two painted fingernails and slathering the meat with ketchup.
“Nada,” Manuel said. “Nada mucho.” Everything I want is here, he thought; his alliances had shifted. And just for a moment, it made him a little sad. He pictured the house on Jefferson Lane, the little garden of white and pink impatiens by the front door, and thought, I’ll never go there again.
“But you must miss something,” she said. “You must! Of course you do. Say what it is. I’ll tell you, for me, it’s all the choice, you know what I mean? In the stores and in the restaurants and everywhere. So much choice. So many things all in one place. All the different jeans and sneakers and food, food from all over. That it is that I miss.”
“For me,” Esteban said, “there is some practicality there that you don’t find here. Businesses, offices always open when they say they will. It’s easier to get things done. I miss that.”
“Josefa,” Manuel said, “que cosa en los Estados Unidos echa de menos tu?” What would she miss in the U.S.?
“A mi me encanta los bosques, todos los arboles.” The answer was so perfectly Josefa that Manuel smiled; she would miss forests and trees. She didn’t miss anything she could buy or do, only the beautiful forest, only the natural world.
“The trees! I think that I shall never see / a poem lovely as a tree,” Raimunda said. “Do you know that?”
“You can’t see the forest for the trees,” Esteban said. “That’s another one.”
Raimunda had a whole list of conversational questions like this one that she worked her way through all during dinner: What is your favorite city in the States? What is your favorite thing to do there that you can’t do here? Where have you always wanted to go there that you have never been? Who is your favorite American movie star? And always, that insistent tone and that voice scraping over his nerves and those eyes trained on him like a hawk’s on prey, sidelong, watching. He thought about coming down with a terrible headache, but decided it was too obvious and might upset Josefa. Besides, if he stopped translating, she wouldn’t have had any chance to speak at all.
Finally, Josefa rose to clear the table. “Delicioso,” Raimunda said. “Gracias, Josefa.”
“I will help you,” Manuel said rising. Then he realized that he’d said it in English and started to correct himself.
“Entiendo,” Josefa said, smiling. “En serio, no te preocupes.”
After dessert and coffee, Josefa asked Manuel if he’d mind walking Raimunda back to the bus stop. “Of course not,” he said, “it would be my pleasure.” She said her goodbyes and her thanks and, as Josefa shut the door behind them, Manuel pressed the elevator button. He’d expected that she’d have another series of questions for him for the way home. Who was his favorite baseball player? Where did he eat the best apple pie? But she was quiet. It was the only thing that could have been worse at this moment than her incessant babble. He looked over at her as they stepped out of the building’s well lit foyer and into the night. She was almost at his eye level and her heels clicked along on the pavement. She smiled a little, ducked her head again, and said nothing.
“So,” Manuel began in English, “you work with Josefa at the clinic. Are you a nurse also?”
“I am the receptionist,” she said. Then, nothing.
“And do you like it? Like working there?”
Hijo de puta! he thought. He felt the headache coming that he’d considered faking earlier.
They walked along in silence, and he was grateful for the music of the passing cars and the sounds spilling from the doors of the bars and bodegas, songs in Portuguese, English, French. The night seemed full of motion, of life, and Manuel realized that it had been a long while since he’d gone out to a bar himself. He’d become so used to the rhythm of a family with children, and for some time now, he hadn’t wanted to be anywhere but where Josefa was. What am I doing? The words came to him in English and he sounded them again in his mind. What am I doing?
A couple passed them, holding hands. A car full of boys cut through the traffic, bass so loud it rocked the sidewalk like a boat. They screeched to a halt beside Manuel and Raimunda and barked something Manuel couldn’t understand.
Raimunda grabbed his arm instinctively. He flinched, looked down, and saw her hand on the sleeve of his brown jacket, the orange fingernails, the long boney fingers like talons.
What the hell am I doing? he thought again.
Raimunda let go of his arm and stopped walking. When he took another step and she didn’t follow, he looked back at her.
“Are you going to tell her?” She asked the question in English, as though he’d spoken his own question out loud and she’d heard. Everything inside Manuel was suddenly hollow and her words rung him like a bell.
He fought to control his face, but his voice came out high and strained. “What—tell her what?”
“You know what I mean,” she said. “Are you?”
Raimunda closed the distance between them. She held his eyes, staring at him, through him, as she had the whole night, like a sniper trained on a difficult target. “You are not, are you?” Raimunda laughed but there was nothing funny in it. “You’re going to wait for her to tell you. Is that it? So you risk nothing.” She was standing now almost toe to toe with him, like boxers, or lovers about to kiss. He could feel her breath when she said, “Pah! Coward.”
He scrubbed his face with one hand and turned and started to walk again and Raimunda fell into step beside him. “I didn’t mean for it to happen,” he said.
“I don’t even know how it happened. It was just a normal Tuesday morning and she didn’t do anything different and I didn’t do anything different and then suddenly—” Manuel made a gesture like an explosion with his hands and looked over at Raimunda. She walked with her eyes down now, saying nothing.
“I know you must think I’m a shit. You know what I mean, I’m a shit?”
Raimunda smiled a little. “Yes, I know it.” Then, after a pause, “I do not think you are shit.” She shrugged. “You think she knows?”
“No. Sometimes. I don’t know. I don’t think so.” Manuel said each in quick succession.
Then he had a terrible thought. “You won’t tell her, will you? You wouldn’t…” He trailed off, imagining with mounting horror how badly this could go wrong, stopped by the stunning thought that Monday could be the last day he’d live with his brother, that maybe neither he nor Josefa would speak to him again, maybe they wouldn’t let him see the children. He saw Rosa’s eyes and remembered the warm feel of Paquito asleep against him. “Would you?”
Raimunda lifted the corner of her mouth, her hard eyes impossible to read. “Take me to dinner,” she said. “Take me out. A date.”
Manuel backed away from her two steps in disbelief. “Hah? Are you blackmailing me?” He pushed both hands through his hair. “Is that it?”
“It is not a blackmail,” she said calmly, smiling a little and adjusting her earring. “What is the word? There is a word for it in English.” She clicked her fingernails on the orange plastic hoop. “Leverage. That is it. I am leverage you.”
“You’re leveraging me.”
“What the hell kind of a high school did you go to?”
Raimunda burst out laughing. “I watch American movies, TV! All the time. I love The Sopranos, Law and Order. I love them all. I make you an offer you can’t refuse.”
“If I take you out, you’ll say nothing?” Another car went by, a Kanye West song blaring, and he didn’t hear her answer, only saw her mouth move, forming the word “Yes.” He couldn’t believe what she was asking and the word that came into his mind was “ballsy”—the sheer ballsy-ness of it took his breath away. He wondered if she’d even know what the word meant.
“I don’t even like you, you know?” Manuel said.
She lifted up her dark eyebrows. “You don’t like me now. But what do you know? You didn’t like her until that Tuesday and then, bang! You like her. Maybe you will like me, too, some Tuesday. What do you say?”
Manuel held still a moment, trying to find his footing, feeling the force of this as though he were standing in the ocean, the undertow pulling away the sand underneath him while the incoming wave buffeted in the other direction.
“What can I say? Yes, I guess. Okay.” He found the sudden feeling of relief shocking. Manuel turned and started walking again and she fell in step and took his arm.
Later, after he’d put Raimunda on the bus home, Manuel returned, opened the apartment door as quietly as he could and moved noiselessly through the dining room to the kitchen. The light was on and she was sitting at the table, her head resting on her arms, her arms folded over the book she’d fallen asleep on. He considered for a moment leaving her there, gliding past her into his room, so he wouldn’t have to answer any questions. He considered running his hand over her dark hair and, when she raised her head, kissing her mouth long and hard. Instead, he put his hand on her shoulder. She started awake, raised her eyes, and blinked against the light.
“Como estas?” she said.
“Bien, bien. Gracias por todo, Josefa.” Manuel smiled at her and slid the book out from under her arms, closing it and gesturing in the direction of her room, of the bedroom, he thought, the bedroom where Esteban was already asleep. “Buenas noches,” he said.
She smiled at him again, a slow, sleepy smile, and rubbed her eyes. She unfolded herself from the chair and took the book from his hand, then stepped in and hugged him, her arms around his waist, her head on his chest. Manuel stopped breathing. He leaned his cheek against the top of her head and squeezed his eyes shut.
“Echaré de menos cuando te vayas, sabes?”
Manuel felt dizzy and then her words penetrated his reverie—“I will miss you when you go.” He held her away with both hands. “I’m not going anywhere,” he said, in English. “I won’t go.” Then he, realized, shook his head. “Entiendo? No me voy.”
“I understand,” she said slowly, her Spanish accent thickening the “u” and rounding the “a.” “You will,” she said. “You are.”
Fiction, Vol. 8.2, June 2014
I strap Jessica into her high chair and shout a warning to Tina about the school bus. Tina scurries down the stairs and calls out a reminder for me about how little time is left until her sixteenth birthday. Without a goodbye, she lets the storm door slam.
I sense an unusual enthusiasm for school and trail after her, making it to the front door in time to watch her slide into a hulk of a sedan. I stare, my breath fogging the glass, as she turns her knees toward the driver and gathers her dirty-blonde hair. The car spews blue smoke as it chugs away from the curb. It’s a Buick, the color of a middle-aged penny.
I know about getting over on parents. I know the power of the pebble as an irresistible signal, clinking against a bedroom window in the middle of the night. I know all the freedom-loving lies. No teenager knew the rules of spinning them better than I did: make enough eye contact to prove engagement but act casual. Tell your story and keep it simple. Stay in character and, most importantly, walk away at the first opportunity.
What I didn’t know: the slap of the lie. The clash of my simultaneous urges to chain Tina to her bed forever and write her off for good. I press my forehead against the cool glass. The surprise has stiffened my jaw and hollowed my guts. I am a mannequin posing in the window.
Jessica practices her pincer grip, eyeing my face between picking up Cheerios. I wander around the kitchen, clutching my cell phone, considering what tone to use in a text to Tina. All caps yelling or sugary sarcasm? I decide against communication and drop the phone onto the counter. A cup of tea crosses my mind, but slamming the kettle back onto the cold stove is more satisfying.
If Dan were here, he would calmly survey his parenting options. I tell myself (again) that he can thank the luxury of a step-parent’s built-in distance. He is a fresh horse. I am worn down. A tug on the refrigerator door reveals that he remembered his lunch for work. The brown grocery bag he uses to carry his enormous meal is gone. My husband proves that opposites attract when it comes to calories as well. He eats endlessly yet stays thin. I must starve myself to keep from gaining an ounce.
I flip the calendar over to June, to today, and note Jessica’s well-baby appointment on the second. I run my fingers over the stars penned on the square for the third, for Tina’s birthday. I sigh for the summer ahead. For hot nights. For crickets chirping in the void.
I carry Jessica to the spot on the living room floor where I can see her from the kitchen and blow raspberry kisses against her silky little belly until she giggles. Then I leave her to play with her toys. I straighten the kitchen, remove the tray from the high chair, and wipe crumbs from the vinyl seat. I imagine Tina sitting at a desk at school. I sweep the floor and as the bristles of the broom collect debris, something gathers within me. I tap the dustpan on the waste can and decide to cancel my plans to celebrate Tina’s birthday. Manicures and shopping for new clothes hardly seem like good ideas now.
At 7:50 I dial the attendance office at the high school, and a woman tells me that Tina arrived on time. Dan would call this a victory. I call it a sickening familiarity with my past. I see only a boy and a car—and I vow to put a stop to it.
I’ve delayed Jessica’s nap to coincide with Tina’s return from school, and she is cranky, poking at her heavy-lidded eyes as I settle her into the pastels of the nursery and tiptoe away.
I stake out my position in the flower garden at the front of the house, beneath the kitchen window. My rehearsed lines, about exactly what it is that young men want in the backseats of cars, tangle in my head. I cringe, forced to recall moments of lust I had long ago buried. And I worry. I’m about to warn against the very thing I did to bring Tina into this world. Won’t she only hear that she is a mistake? I sit back on my heels, swatting at the gnats attacking my face, flushed with shame.
Beyond my flapping, gloved hand, I spot Mrs. Blumenthal emerging from her house across the street. I pretend not to notice and shove the trowel under a dandelion. I murmur: do-not-come-over-here, do-not-come-over-here, do-not-come-over-here, but another glance confirms the direction of her uptight gait. She approaches, her filled-in eyebrows raised.
I hate this woman. Mrs. B, as she instructs the neighborhood kids to call her, failed to disguise her age-calculating snoopiness the first time she met Tina and me. While she smiled and chatted with us, she looked us up and down, and compared Tina’s gangly height to my lack of crow’s feet. Finally she exhaled, blurted out something about us looking like twins, and stretched her overdone ruby lips into a wicked grin. “What beautiful skin you have,” she said to me. “You’ll just have to tell me your secret.”
I stand and force a smile before turning to greet her. “Hello, Nancy.”
“You dyed your hair again, didn’t you,” she says, touching her own dark curls.
“I did.” I pull the gloves from my hands.
“And that’s a new-mom haircut if I ever saw one. But oh—I prefer that color you had last summer. This is too dark for your skin.”
Again with the skin. I shrug.
“How’s that little baby?” She croons her question but doesn’t wait for an answer. “I don’t know how you do it. I barely have the energy to look after my two. Thank God they are both in school this year. And you—with a teenager and a baby.”
“I am a superwoman…” I bend down and collect my trowel. “…and with my super hearing, I just heard her cry.”
“Well, I just wanted to give this to you.” A small box wrapped in metallic pink rests on her upturned palm. “For Tina. For her birthday. It’s just a little something.”
The shiny paper glints in the sunlight, stealing all the attention. I thank her and accept the gift. I always end up thanking this woman. “Gotta go,” I say and the little gift in my hand makes me sorry for my hatred.
From the kitchen window I watch Mrs. Blumenthal retrace her steps. She is almost in her front door when the dark sedan parade-floats onto the street and comes to rest in front of our house.
Tina does not linger in the car (oh, happy day). Her fingertips never leave the surface of the car as she glides, cat-like, around the front of it, her eyes trained on the windshield. She pauses, languidly fingering the hood ornament (Jesus Christ), before continuing on to the opposite side of the car—laughing now—then leans into the driver’s window to say goodbye (goddamn it). She might as well be mooning the neighbors on the other side of the street as she shifts her weight from hip to hip. Across the way, Mrs. Blumenthal’s window curtain shifts. I cradle my head in one hand.
“I told you, he’s Emily’s brother.”
“Since when is it okay not to ask me?” My arms are crossed. The countertop presses into my lower back.
“Since you would say no.” Tina crosses her arms to match. “He’s rescuing me from the school bus.”
“Rescuing you? Oh, Tina, I think you need to be more melodramatic about this.” She wilts and I regret my tone.
“It’s just a ride, Mom.”
“Unless there are other things you’re not telling me about.”
“You mean like the hotel room we hook up in?” Tina smirks at my open, silent mouth. She giggles. “Come on, Mom. I’m not stupid.” She sidles up to me and touches my arm, her green eyes staring straight into mine. “There’s no way I’m going to ruin my life with a baby.”
There’s that hollow feeling again.
“Hey, what’s this?” Tina reaches past me and takes the glittering gift from the windowsill. “For me?”
“From Mrs. B. She just brought it over.”
Tina tears the paper and removes the lid from the box. She lifts a gold chain that dangles a heart-shaped locket. “Oh, this is nice.” She fastens it around her neck and opens the heart. “Look, you can put little pictures in it. I always wanted one of these.”
“Not pictures of you and that boy, I hope…” Did I say that out loud?
Tina heads for the mirror in her bedroom.
She reappears in the doorway.
“Why should I believe you now?”
“Because—it’s almost my birthday. You have to believe me.”
In bed tonight, Dan protests, “You can’t cancel her birthday,” surprised enough by my declaration to turn on the light and prop himself up on his elbow. “I’ve read that the most important thing with teens is to maintain the relationship, to stay engaged.”
He sleeps after I assure him that I’ll think it over. Lying quietly in the dark over the next few hours, I come up with exactly zero reasons why I acted the way I did when I was sixteen. I was the fourth and youngest child. My parents were gentle experts by then, good people. There was nothing to force my fall. I had taken the swan-dive off the cliff all by myself.
There was no explanation, except maybe a boy who wanted me. Wanted me badly. Would do almost anything to get to me. It was the beginning of a real life, I’d thought—of love—and secrecy was the delicious, whispering way to say yes to all of it.
I hid under baggy clothes until my bulging reality was more than I could hide. I carried the weight, inside and out. And then, with my mother’s help, I did what I was doing now. I loved my baby, took care of my baby. Warm tears slide across my temples and into my ears. Dan is right. The birthday must be celebrated.
Tina is still my baby.
I have one day to make things right. I won’t be outdone by Nancy Blumenthal. Or a boy. I’m lucky to get a reservation at the riding stable on such short notice. I buy a card with loving words inside and then drive to the bakery in my old neighborhood. Even from the parking lot, the glow of the lighted cases beckons me. Syrupy air embraces me as I enter.
Jessica is on my hip, red-eyed and warm, still upset from the doctor’s needle. The tall baker finishes tying a box, the rote motions of his hands flowing like sign language. He greets Jessica and me, but the baby averts her eyes and bows her head onto my chest. I explain about the doctor. The baker clowns an exaggerated frown.
“I don’t much like the doctor either,” he says. “But my wife makes me go. What can I do for you?”
“I need a cake for my daughter’s birthday.”
“Let me guess. It’s baby’s first birthday.”
“Not this daughter.” I smooth Jessica’s downy hair. “My other daughter will be sixteen tomorrow.”
“Sweet sixteen,” he announces. “Half-sheet?”
“Quarter.” I’m thinking it’s anything but sweet. I wonder if parents of teenagers seem more exhausted to him. I can’t help myself: “Teenager, you know?”
“Don’t I know,” he says, pointing his thumb for emphasis toward the store’s back room. “Got my own here. Always trying to keep him in line.” He shakes his head and grunts. His black, sculpted hair doesn’t move. “Can’t believe a word he says.”
I study him for a moment, searching for playfulness. I find none. The baker’s eyes are filled with contempt. “The cake should say ‘Happy Sweet Sixteen, Tina.’”
“Of course it should.” He begins to take notes on the order. “Chocolate, yellow, or white?”
“Can you do horses?” I push away the thought that Tina is too old for such whimsy.
“It’ll cost you.” His sudden laughter is loud in the small store. “I have to admit I’m no good at drawing them—they always end up looking like dogs.” He rustles through a drawer next to the register and pulls out a clear bag of little plastic horses. “I have these. For an extra three dollars, they give your cake some 3-D action.”
I say yes to the horses, and we agree that the cake will be ready the next morning. Before I leave I look over the finished cakes in the case closest to me—a batch of perfection, lined up and ready to go. The baker has done his part. He’s taken them from the oven and cooled them, piped icing along their edges, and turned them into pretty props.
Tina’s birthday begins with a gorgeous morning, crisp but with the promise of real warmth. We wear blue jeans and boots, and Tina’s long hair is pinned beneath her riding cap, revealing her graceful neck. She sits easily astride a horse, her body loose and comfortable. I grasp the reins and a fistful of my horse’s mane in one hand, and in the other a crop and the front edge of the saddle. The horseflesh beneath it is sweaty and warm.
I push my heels down and press the balls of my feet into the stirrups, the way Tina instructed me, but trotting is a choppy surprise. I struggle to keep my balance and keep falling forward. (Are there any muscles in my legs?) It’s a relief to rein the horse back to a walk.
The horses dip their velvety muzzles into the stream before we cross to a wide, mown trail that hugs the waterline. Sycamores hold the bank with scrub trees and tall weeds, and ahead of us frogs plunk into the water. A cornfield borders the other side, guarded by a split-rail fence with a single barbed wire across the top. Patches of birch trees split the path, and there is a serenity here that gives me hope that we can have a heart-to-heart talk.
Tina takes her feet from the stirrups and lets them wag with the motion of her horse. She leans forward and hugs the chestnut mare’s neck, then drops her reins and reclines all the way back until her head is resting on the animal’s rump. I’m too enamored to tell her to be careful, too envious of her confidence. I don’t want to lose this mood.
“Can you believe the look on Dan’s face when we were leaving?” Tina’s closes her eyes when the dappled sunshine plays on her face.
I smile. “He agreed to it. I just don’t think he realized what he was agreeing to.” We laugh like conspirators pulling a fast one.
“Mom, this is so great. This is the best thing you could have done for my birthday.”
Before I can answer, before I can revel in exactly the response I had hoped for, my horse begins switching its tail violently, a tantrum of coarse hairs in the humid air.
“It’s a huge bug,” Tina says. “It’s flying around us.”
The first buck is slight—a controlled irritation. I turn in the saddle and find the horsefly settled on my horse’s rump, near the base of his tail. It is about the size of my big toe, and I realize that I’ve never seen a horsefly before today. I chase it off with the shaft of the crop, but the fly circles around and lands in nearly the same spot, its flight resolved with the energy of metal meeting a magnet. I brush it off again, and my horse dances sideways, ears pinned. I hold on but he’s coiling up beneath me.
As I watch the fly land once more on the expanse of rump, my vision dims at the edges. I notice the fly’s red-clay eyes and—is that fur on its body? Everything feels bottled and I experience a moment of respect: for the fly’s knowledge about where a horsetail cannot reach and for exactly how coordinated a rider with a crop can be, like some kind of robotic sensor owning the space between pendulum swings.
Next, my horse launches its rear half skyward.
I land on top of the fence. The barbed wire grapples with my back, below my left shoulder blade. I meet the ground fully on my side and hear a snap. Unable to breathe, I roll onto my back and weave through the clean, blue spaces between the clouds. I am conscious but detached—a warm mass in the cool, tickling grass.
Tina’s jeans-clad legs climb the fence to get to me. I see a barb rip into her hand and then her boot heels thud beside my head. She is composed, calling 911. “Exit off Route 1. Yes, south of Oxford.”
The evening is coming on, and the strong painkiller broadens the twilight. Nine stitches hold together the gash on my back. I feel their presence the way you feel a braid in your hair or a ring on your finger. Tina has six stitches in her hand, and it’s funny to me that we will share a scar story. I sit immobilized in Dan’s recliner, the only position my broken collarbone will allow. Dan and Tina placed me here, and then Dan left, taking Jessica to the pharmacy with him.
Through the living room window, I see the Buick pull up in front of the house. The driver hops out and smooths his T-shirt against his flat belly at the curb. With a jerk of his head, he flips his dark hair from his forehead. He stands tall in his lanky frame for a moment, a hopeful posture, before striding up the front walk. The doorbell rings its cheerful notes.
I feign sleep when Tina pads across the room and opens the front door. I imagine the glow of silent texts that must have transpired between them. (Once again Tina didn’t ask.) I crack my eyelids. In the doorway the handsome boy holds the fingertips of Tina’s bandaged hand. His eyes say sorry, so sorry you got hurt. “And on your birthday, no less,” he whispers. Their closeness is so honest it stuns me. I watch as my daughter leads the boy into the kitchen with her good hand.
The birthday girl takes the cake from the pantry and carries it to the kitchen table. I can’t see them anymore, so I let my droopy eyelids close and picture them—cutting the cotton string and lifting the lid of the floppy cardboard box, their heads touching as they peer at the cake.
“Mom, you’re shivering.” Tina’s voice rouses me a little. She must have peeked in on me. She covers me with the heavy quilt, and it seems to press me down into the chair until I hear their voices from the kitchen again.
I strain to listen, but I am so weary from the ride and the emergency room. From knowing it will be a while before I can hold Jessica again. From thanking God that this happened to me and not to Tina. Then it hits me, thundering through my narcotic haze. I am the one who has fallen. Again. The thought slips away nearly as fast as it appeared. I can’t fight this fatigue any longer. God, this quilt is warm. I let myself go and float into sweet sleep.