In a Silent Voice

Fiction
Bonnie Thompson


Photo Credit: woodleywonderworks/Flickr (CC-by)

The other boys won’t play with Kevin. In his pink pullover and purple leggings, he twirls around on the parking lot by himself, singing softly and shaking his head back as if long hair cascades down behind it.

Ruthie sits on the curb, waiting for recess to end. The thin November sun catches a shard of amber glass in the gutter next to her, its curved edge like a shark’s tooth. Kevin spins an imaginary baton, and when Mrs. Peavey rings the bell, the other kids rush past him for the classroom’s back door. One boy clips him with his shoulder, but Kevin just turns the jolt into a jerky dance move.

Ruthie takes off her jacket as she passes the empty desk next to hers, heading toward the scrum of kids in the closet. She edges around the flying hands and heels, the hard leather soles of the girls’ shoes. Two weeks ago, her best friend, Betsy Greenaway, moved to Pennsylvania. Miss Monroe, lacing her fingers together nervously, reminds Mrs. Peavey that two students still have to make their presentations.

Mrs. Peavey’s black hair sweeps off her liver-spotted forehead like the glossy wings of a crow. “End of the day,” she tells the student teacher, looking over her half-glasses at the skinny little girl already back in her seat, as separate from the commotion around her as if held within a shell.

*

Mrs. Peavey chalks two columns of numbers on the blackboard, the first in base 10, the second in base 4. Fourth grade is early for this material, but she believes her students can handle it. She describes how base 4 works, and then she writes out a couple of equations.

Ruthie gnaws at a hangnail. To her left, David Weeks has aligned all his pencils at the top edge of his desk, their sharp points aimed toward her. You can use the real numbers on the left, she sees, then translate to the column on the right. She takes her finger away from her mouth—You look like a little rat when you do that—but soon it goes back again.

Mrs. Peavey pulls down the map of the United States, hiding the half of the board that holds the key. The chalk taps like a secret code as she poses another equation.

Ruthie frowns. Then a wave rushes though her head and everything shifts, so that what used to be 4 is now 10. She sits up in the plastic chair anchored to her desk, her hands pressed under her thighs, like two hot little pancakes, and waits for the next equation.

Across the aisle, Donna Schmidt protests. She flips her ponytail, a shimmering yellow plumb line. “But there is a five,” she argues. “You can’t just take it away!” Behind her, lynx-eyed Katy Halloran leans sideways and echoes the objection.

Mrs. Peavey’s lips make a thin maroon line, and she leads the class through more equations. Then she turns to write another problem on the board, the chalk long and cool in her stiff hand.

“Tell me the equivalent,” she says, and next to the base 10 number 16, she etches two options: 40 and 100. “How many people think the answer is forty?” she asks. Donna understands now; her hand shoots into the air, followed by Katy’s and then some eighteen others. “Four sets of four with none left over,” David Weeks chants, repeating the formula.

“And how many vote for one hundred?” Mrs. Peavey says.

Only Ruthie’s arm floats up, sickled above her head.

“Superb!” Mrs. Peavey exclaims. “Ruthie, do you want to tell the class why the answer is one hundred?”

Ruthie shakes her head, a barely perceptible movement. Mrs. Peavey notices the parted sea of faces turned toward Ruthie, their expressions of wonderment and suspicion, and reveals the secret herself: there is no four.

*

Bolted to the cafeteria’s ceiling are rows and rows of long light fixtures, yet three feet off the floor, everything seems murky.

Ruthie extracts her lunch items from a brown paper bag. She lays the expected peanut butter sandwich on the table and reaches for something soft and silver. When she peels back the tinfoil, it turns out to hold last night’s leftover string beans, now sumpy-smelling and congealed. She presses the foil closed and pushes it back inside the bag, and the last item rolls forward. Under her fingertips it has a familiar, too light feeling.

There is an empty seat next to her, and another one across, where Betsy used to be. Ruthie nibbles at the sandwich’s crust. To her right, a short, round lunch lady with a large magenta birthmark scorched across her neck cackles at something.

Donna jolts the table, shrieking as she jumps up to take a brownie from Katy. Under the fluorescent glare, Donna’s skin looks ghostly, her nose as sharp as a book’s corner. Ruthie cuts her eyes across the aisle as a second grader walks her tray toward the garbage bins. The girl’s spindly legs and knobby knees look like a starving child’s from TV. Ruthie feels queasy and angles her head down, the peanut butter dry in her mouth.

*

Miss Monroe tries not to startle the little girl, but when Ruthie turns in response to the tap on her shoulder, the expression on her face flusters the student teacher. She squats down at the end of the table, her nylons scissoring as they slide past each other.

“Hi there,” she says. She is aware that this is something Mrs. Peavey, eating her chicken salad sandwich in the faculty lounge, would never do. But the children are not in a one-room schoolhouse, working out the three Rs on slate tablets; the world is more complicated now, Miss Monroe understands, and it can be hard to reach some of the kids.

“We’re all looking forward to your presentation this afternoon,” she says. “Are you excited about it?”

Neither sentence makes any sense to Ruthie, her little fingers wrinkling the plastic baggie.

“It’ll be simple.” Miss Monroe tucks her shiny auburn hair behind one ear and smiles with the sort of confidence instilled by years on soccer fields. “All you have to do is tell the class what your project shows, and then a little bit about how you made it.”

That radiant smile has caused a few of the boys to develop obvious crushes on the petite student teacher. Ruthie sees the pink flesh of her gums above her even white teeth, glistening with saliva, and the pale fine down on her cheek, and, when she blinks, how the eyeliner on her right lid has bled crookedly into the follicles of her lashes.

“You’re a little worried about speaking in front of the class, aren’t you?” asks Miss Monroe, and Ruthie nods. “It’s no big deal,” the student teacher assures her. “Once you get started, it’s easy-peasy.”

Ruthie stares at her, as if hoping to hear how this can be so.

“You’ll do fabulously,” Miss Monroe goes on, shifting a little because squatting is making her legs go numb. But Ruthie only looks as if someone has struck her.

Miss Monroe changes tacks. “Remember that girl from third grade I introduced you to?” the student teacher prompts. “I thought she could be your twin!”

Ruthie pictures a brown-eyed, brown-haired child wearing a sweater like hers, a sky blue crewneck. The girl had been as bubbly as soda pop, as bouncy as a puppy. Ruthie had hoped to never have to see her again.

“See? We’re all alike,” Miss Monroe says.

Ruthie starts putting the last corner of her sandwich back into its flimsy bag.

Miss Monroe places one hand on the table to get some of the weight off her legs. She wants to ask how things are at home. “Is there anything,” she says softly, studying the greenish cast in the hollows under Ruthie’s eyes, “you want to talk about?”

Ruthie’s dark gaze returns to Miss Monroe’s face. She raises one shoulder and tilts her head; Miss Monroe has seen children use that gesture before they bring up something they don’t understand. She smiles again and bobs her head encouragingly, light bouncing off the flat silver heart on the delicate chain around her neck.

Ruthie’s mouth works, and she looks off to the side. In the kitchen, something heavy and metal crashes against something else. She pulls her shoulders in.

When Miss Monroe stands, she finds that her right calf has gone to sleep, and she walks slowly so that the children won’t see her limping.

*

Ruthie folds the plastic and puts it in her lunch bag with the fragile egg and the packet of squished green beans and walks it up to the trash bins at the front. Ricky Kirwin spikes his own balled-up brown bag into the open receptacle. “He beats the buzzer!” he whoops as he spins around, almost knocking into Ruthie. “Argh, back to class,” he says to her in cheerful grievance. Everyone likes this freckle-faced kid: boys, girls, even other classes’ teachers. His grin is open, guileless, the edges of his front teeth minutely scalloped. Ruthie, smiling back up at him, sees where a green film of mucus has gotten caught partway across one nostril.

Johnny Iovine, returning his lunch tray, tries to wing it through the slot in the wall from a couple of feet away, and it clatters to the floor, mashed potatoes exploding into the air. A small, dark boy, he holds his sides when he laughs.

“Shame on you!” squawks the lunch lady, her neck livid beneath the red blotch.

Ruthie flinches and moves over to the line in which they will return to class.

*

Ruthie understands that her project isn’t very good. Libby Berger, whose father is an eye doctor, brought in an actual snuffbox, a delicate oval case made of engraved silver worn almost smooth over the centuries, with an enamel portrait of Benjamin Franklin on the lid, and all the kids were allowed to touch it. It wasn’t, technically, relevant to the unit the class is studying—the pioneers’ move westward—but Libby had also made a poster that tied snuff to tobacco and tobacco to how we smoked the peace pipe with the Indians but then took all their land during the Gold Rush.

Back in the classroom there’s an edgy energy, kids clumping and splitting and clumping again. All the projects are lined up on the shelves under the windows, past which brown oak leaves swirl in a coppery wind. While they were in the cafeteria, low clouds crept in, and now it feels to Ruthie like nighttime.

She sits down, her fingernails finding the little ridge at the edge of the laminate desktop. Her whole idea is dumb: a relief map of the journey Marcus and Narcissa Whitman made from St. Louis to the Oregon Country, across the Continental Divide. That is the focal point of the effort, in fact: all that flatness in the east builds to the crisis of the Rocky Mountains, which Ruthie made from a recipe she found in a magazine and painted brown with white tops. Her project was just playing with mud pies, and she doesn’t see how she can explain it to the class. The paste map shows only the route, not how, a few years after that crossing, the Whitmans were massacred.

Mrs. Peavey quiets the children and says that half of them will work on the marine life mural and the other half on their independent Reading Rally exercises. When Ruthie learns that she’ll be in the reading half, she stops pinching the skin of her fingertips between her nails and the desk.

*

At the end of the day, with only the final two presentations to go, the students are given a few minutes to look again at one another’s projects. A frigid wind seeps in through the loose sash where Ruthie is peering at Katy Halloran’s diorama in a shoe box of a pioneer family’s sod hut, with a dirt floor and two small, dim windows made out of waxed paper. Ruthie has just recognized the Monopoly iron in front of the red-hot fire when Kevin appears next to her and says, in his soft voice, “This stuff is so stupid.”

Ruthie starts and angles her head toward him. He had sewn a perfect replica flag of the short-lived California Republic, with its bear and star, and he’d held it up proudly in front of the class and described how he’d had to use both machine stitching and handwork. She’s gotten nothing from her project that she hadn’t already understood from reading about the Oregon Trail—instead, there’d been a moment of terror when she banged it into a metal seatback on the school bus and thought it would all crack apart.

“Those aren’t, like, volcanoes, are they?” he asks about her line of chocolate mountains, pointing at the snowy top of one that is unintentionally cratered.

Ruthie shakes her head no.

“Because my folks took me to Hawaii last year, which was really beautiful, all these strange flowers everywhere, and we saw a volcano with smoke coming out of the top.”

Ruthie nods. She didn’t think there were volcanoes in the Rockies, but now she wonders if there are, if she should have put one in.

“So how’d you make them?” Kevin asks.

Ruthie sucks in her lips. It was flour and salt and water, but the instructions also called for cream of tartar, which they didn’t have. So she followed the recipe, only skipping the tartar, hoping it didn’t do something crucial, and she spread the mixture on an unused FedEx box, flat for sea level and adding another layer for Oregon’s high desert. And then, obviously, built up the peaks.

“Well, I guess you’ll tell us soon,” says Kevin, his eyes flaring as, at the front of the room, Mrs. Peavey claps her hands sharply to get everyone back in their seats.

*

Even Johnny Iovine understands that his project is lame. He makes snorting, honking sounds as he sidles up the aisle between the desks to the front of the class, flipping it between his hands, and he guffaws again as he plunks it down on the old metal typewriter table set up there.

It’s a totem pole, like that majestic symbol of the Northwest Indians. Only instead of a large pillar of cedar, his has been made from one of those white foam rollers people use in gyms, and instead of being carved, it’s just painted.

He explains about the figures he drew on it, snickering when he can’t help but point out the divot where his pencil stabbed into the foam, and a speck of spittle flies from his lips. The traditional totem pole typically shows a tribe’s ancestors or its myths or history, he says, so he used his own family. He webs his fingers over the big-toothed grimaces that represent his grandfather and grandmother and the triangular black snoot, as he calls it, of his dog, turning the tube to show it to each side of the class. As he pivots, the kids on the opposite side glimpse blank styrofoam, since he only painted the front.

Mrs. Peavey looks at her watch, then takes off her half-glasses to clean the lenses with a white handkerchief. She puts the cloth back in her purse, the latch catching with the sound of a trap snapping shut.

“OK, Johnny, very good,” she says, explaining that she’s giving him credit for his understanding of the material but subtracting points for his “cavalier attitude.”

Johnny drops his head between his shoulders and shuffles back to his desk. Just before he sits down, he can’t resist bopping Jimmy Dombrowski on the head with his foam totem and guffawing.

*

Ruthie carries her Oregon Trail project up to the front of the room, the blood rushing in her ears like rolling thunder. As she sets it on the little table, the loose window rattles, and Mrs. Peavey twists in her chair and scowls at it. Ruthie tilts the map up so that the class can see it, but it shakes, skidding on the metal, and she lays it flat again, afraid that the mountains will shear off. An acrylic fiber on one of her knee socks pricks her skin like a needle.

Her tongue feels like it’s been wrapped in gauze. She points at the Rockies, those towering, white-capped peaks, because they’re really the focus of the map, the pioneers’ crucible, the thing that would forever separate life before from life after—if there even would be any life after. In the back of the room, Miss Monroe smiles her big, gummy smile and Ruthie looks away, through the heavy mullioned windows, where, in the seasick light, the wind is whipping dead oak leaves in a fresh fury.

Donna Schmidt torques her neck and pops her eyes at Katy.

Ruthie understands that her map is pointless—basically the same picture from right in their history textbook, only larger and made out of sludge. In her chest, a squirrel’s claws scrabble against wood.

Again she points to the Continental Divide. Rust blisters one edge of the wheeled table under the map. Again Miss Monroe, in the back, nods and smiles, though less widely this time, and again Ruthie looks out the window, at the cold, dead leaves.

To Ruthie’s right and a little behind her, Mrs. Peavey shifts in her chair, the vinyl creaking forward.

“Marcus and Narcissa Whitman.” Her voice sounds tinny and far off, like she is a great distance from herself.

She introduces the pioneers, and in the back of the room, Miss Monroe beams, her cheeks bunched like rosy apples. Donna Schmidt slides down in her chair and fiddles with something in her lap, but Ruthie stares straight ahead, like a horse wearing blinders, and plows on, explaining how the Whitmans traveled by sleigh and then steamboat and then covered wagon.

Mrs. Peavey gently clears her throat and suggests that Ruthie speak a little louder and not so fast. She peers over her narrow glasses at Andy and Russell, who always have to be stopped from battling with their action figures during class but are now both staring, open-mouthed. “You’ve even got the attention of our two rowdies,” she says in a funny lilting tone.

Ruthie takes a ragged breath and projects her thin voice forward, drawing it from deep beneath her ribs, and says how in the mountains, they had to abandon the wagon, leaving behind all their furniture and most of their clothes. Her lungs feel like gills, their filmy membranes fluttering and catching. At the rear, Miss Monroe leans back against the wall, closing her eyes, and Ruthie thinks that what passes over the student teacher’s face is relief, like the lightness in Mrs. Peavey’s voice.

She realizes that they were afraid that she would not talk at all, and she falters and struggles to pronounce the word “flour.” They think she’s triumphantly crossed the mountains, but she knows that’s not true. Remaining silent would have exposed her entirely; only through this pointless and terrifying bout of speaking is she able to conceal herself.

pencil

Bonnie Thompson is a writer and book editor who lives in central California. Her work has been published in several literary journals, including the Antioch Review, Ascent, and the late, great Elysian Fields Quarterly. Email: bthompson.xyz[at]gmail.com

Posted in Uncategorized

Thirteen Cents

Fiction
Bonnie Thompson


Photo Credit: Harminder Dhesi/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

With tax, the Tampax will cost $4.33, Lorene calculates, leaving a dime and three pennies in the change pocket of her wallet. Her stomach clenches: that’s not a good number to carry around today. In Chinese, the word for four sounds the same as the word for death. And thirteen is one plus three, which equals four, which equals death.

“I thought it was on sale,” the girl in front of her is protesting. Blue barbed wire encircles her wrist.

“Only the vanilla,” says the clerk.

“What if I take one of the cans out?”

The man behind Lorene coughs. She shifts away from sour coffee.

“You can’t break up the six-pack.” The clerk pushes the girl’s bills back toward her. “Go ahead and switch it out. Aisle seven.”

“My mom only…” The girl blinks down at the cans of chocolate Ensure, then raises her head. “Maybe the penny dish?”

“Don’t have one. Besides,”—he glances at the restlessly twitching end of the line—“you’re not supposed to take all of them.”

“Just thirteen,” she mumbles.

“One-thirteen,” he says.

“Thirteen cents?” Lorene holds out the coins. After the clerk lets them fall into his cupped palm, she fishes out the bill, too.

The girl turns to thank Lorene, her face as blank as an egg.

“You sure, mmm…?” The clerk’s lips are pressed together like he was going to say “ma’am” but then took in Lorene’s baseball cap and flannel overshirt and, even though she’s small, wondered about “sir.”

Lorene shrugs, says something about how it’s just more efficient.

Plus, later on, she won’t be carrying around that thirteen, which equals four. In the clerk’s full register, it’s neutralized.

*

Lorene leaves work early. She has to get one of those tests you’re supposed to do when you hit forty but she didn’t. Eventually, she had to either schedule it or stop seeing the NP she goes to instead of the doctor.

Traffic snarls the 101, the city squeezed between ag fields and rugged hills. She kneads a cable of muscle in her neck and tries to relax into the song on the radio, only it seems off—as if someone has scrubbed all the bright points off Joni Mitchell. She hopes the delay will last forever.

Then the Kia’s short blue hood is pulling into a parking spot, sun blasting off hundreds of windshields like a fritzed-out solar farm, and she’s moving through the double glass doors, into a chilly room where two receptionists sit behind a cutout, the one on the phone skinny and dark as a stiletto heel, the other pale, with wide cheekbones, wearing a silk blouse the color of orange juice.

On the edge of a hard couch, Lorene extracts her reading glasses from her backpack and, using a pen with a big red daisy taped to one end, fills out a questionnaire that starts with the numbers that identify her and moves inward, to her vital organs. When she brings the clipboard back, the dish-faced receptionist reaches out her hand without looking up from the computer monitor.

The pages of a magazine pass before Lorene’s eyes: actresses with golden hair in silver dresses. She picks up another and, halfway through, realizes it’s the same issue.

“I should have told the girl four-thirty, I guess,” a woman with a wavery voice is saying. “Or quarter of five.”

“They had some emergencies today,” the receptionist in orange explains. “They’re trying to catch up.”

“I hope I make it,” the patient says, and as the technician calls Lorene in, she glimpses a liver-spotted hand on a black cane and fluffy shoulder-length yellow hair.

*

In the blue cotton gown, worn thin by the bodies of strangers, Lorene feels as cold as a corpse. The machine rears up in the middle of the room, white metal with a dinosaur skull and flat jaws. The tech murmurs softly as she uses its knobs and pedals to cajole it into position, and it obediently lowers and tilts its massive head, glinting at Lorene. She wraps the faded fabric tighter around herself, making a double layer in front.

The tech steps away, revealing a framed print on the wall: sunflowers sprawling in a vase. Lorene’s ankle rolls, and her hands grab at nothing. Her uncle had that painting in his basement.

“Ho-kay there,” the tech says. “Do you need to sit down?”

Lorene shakes her head.

The Pacific Ocean.

Blue waves against the pale sand.

The Pacific Ocean is blue, the Atlantic Ocean is green.

The Pacific Ocean is eighteen miles to the west. The Atlantic is three thousand miles to the east.

Blue waves on the pale sand. White spray flying off dark rocks.

“That’s good,” the tech says. “Focus on your breathing.”

She’s young, her hands soft and veinless, and her bronze hair is bobbed short in the back, leaving the nape of her neck exposed.

“No one likes having this done,” she reassures Lorene, pressing buttons that make the red numbers change. “But we try to make it as uncomfortable—I mean,” she laughs, “as un-uncomfortable—as possible. We can’t actually make it comfortable.”

“No,” Lorene says.

“Just never do one during your period,” she advises. “Always more tender then.”

“That was my plan,” Lorene says. “Then: surprise!”

The tech looks at Lorene from under her bangs. “I can’t go any easier,” she says.

“Of course.”

“But you’re good to do it,” she goes on, peeling a little sticker off a sheet of slick paper and opening the gown to position it on Lorene’s left nipple. A marker for the X-ray, she explains. “Some women”—she deploys another pasty and applies it without touching Lorene—“they just bury their heads in the sand.”

“Is that an option?” Lorene jokes, her voice sounding like a tin can being opened.

“No!” The tech gives her a reprimanding look. “If you’ve got something, it’s much better to catch it early.”

She puts her hand on the small of Lorene’s back to coax her right next to the machine, and then she starts raising its lower jaw.

“It’s like they think they can undo it later. Like”—she uses both hands to shape Lorene’s breast on the plate, as if it’s bread dough—“like they can wait until they’ve already got a problem and then start exercising and eating organic.”

“And that will erase the whole thing,” Lorene says in her new clarinet-reed voice.

“That’s right!” The tech raises her eyes to Lorene’s, and Lorene notices that they’re large and gray, like her sister’s, when she says, “As if good actions can undo something bad that’s already happened.”

Lorene looks away.

The tech turns the dial, squeezing the glass plate down on Lorene’s breast, and after it’s already pressed flat, she keeps turning, until Lorene can’t breathe. Her flesh becomes a ghostly pancake, tipped by a fat lip, and then it’s all blurry.

Pacific Ocean. Blue waves with white caps. Scrub-jay blue near the shore. Sapphire farther out.

“Hold your breath,” the tech says. Her rubber soles pad away.

When she returns and releases the plate, Lorene inhales jaggedly.

“Good,” the tech says. Then: “I’ll get you a tissue.”

*

Lorene is almost out the door when the receptionist in the orange blouse calls her back, saying they don’t have her signature on the HIPAA forms.

“The privacy thingie,” she prompts in response to Lorene’s dazed look, rattling the clipboard at her.

Perched on a cold leatherette chair, Lorene grasps the pen with the big red flower, but the type seems to be Cyrillic. All she wants to do is go home, pull on her pajamas, and eat a bowl of macaroni and cheese on the couch, until the TV narcotizes her.

She paws through her backpack, searching for her reading glasses. The woman with the yellow hair comes out of the offices. She’s wearing glasses with black frames and black orthopedic shoes, and the pale receptionist makes a tepee of her eyebrows and tells her that she missed her ride. The van was here at four-fifteen, she says, and the driver came in and asked for her, but he had other passengers and couldn’t wait.

“Oh, Annie.” The woman’s weight goes against her cane, her wide fingers gripping hard to still the wobble. Her hair, Lorene notices, looks both dry and sticky, like fiberglass insulation.

The skinny receptionist glances up. “Where do you need to get to?”

“Hidden Hills,” she says, “in Roseland,” and the typist shakes her head and resumes clicking keys.

“I’m right near there,” volunteers Annie, “but I won’t be leaving till after six.”

“Oh, no,” says the older woman, squinting up at the clock. Behind her thick lenses, one eye drifts a little.

“I can take you.”

The cane clumps as she rotates to look at Lorene, who gets up to bring the clipboard back, her knapsack slithering into the crook of her elbow. Both receptionists are staring at her like a paused video.

“Well, where do you live?” the woman with the cane asks.

“Graton.” Dropping her off would just mean following the highway south, Lorene figures, instead of the flat farm road west.

“Well, that’s not near at all.”

Lorene looks at the clock. Hidden Hills is a mobile park, and the woman got here via the county van system. “It’s just about the same to go through Sebastopol,” she says.

There is a general outpouring of gratitude and praise. “There should be more people like you in this world,” gushes the dark receptionist. Lorene ducks her head and holds the door, standing back to allow room for the cane.

Outside, the heat off the asphalt slams into them; Lorene realizes she should have offered to bring her car around. The older woman halts. “Don’t tell me you don’t have AC,” she says, the cane shimmying under her hand.

“Oh no.” Lorene plucks her flannel shirt away from her tee. “You can’t live without air out here.”

“All right.” The other woman moves her heavy jaw side to side, then continues her tripod progress and introduces herself: Shelley.

A headache seizes Lorene’s right temple. “I had a cousin with that name—Michelle.”

“Oh yeah?” Shelley says. “Me, too. Only mine hated it. Sheldon.” She makes a sound like a small animal is racing up her throat.

“Oh no,” Lorene agrees. “Not as good.”

“No,” Shelley snorts, looking at her sidelong. “Not good.”

Shelley refuses help getting into the car, and when Lorene starts the engine, the radio blares. “I used to love this song!” Shelley exclaims, waving Lorene’s hand away from the volume knob. She raises both arms and jiggles in the seat as Ringo dreams about a garden beneath the sea.

Lorene cranks the AC, which makes a flapping sound like it’s caught a grasshopper, and follows the big white arrows painted on the ground. Shelley half-hums, half-sings about the place where all the children are happy and safe. The sealed car fills with a musty apricot smell, and as they merge into the clotted stream of the highway, McCartney’s bass thrums against the rear window like a repressed memory.

“With me, you can take it.” Shelley points with both index fingers, still bopping along. Once Lorene shifts over, they sail freely.

In the East, Lorene remembers, people said “H.O.V.”; in California, it’s the diamond lane. Like we’re all rich and lucky, she thinks.

The Beatles are followed by an electric guitar. Shelley twists the knob, reducing the plangent soul-searching to a muted whine, and asks Lorene what she was at the imaging center for.

“Just a mammogram,” Lorene says.

“Well, that’s a special kind of torture.” Shelley claps one palm against the other. “Like you put your boob in the open refrigerator and then they slam the door on it.”

A shaky laugh escapes Lorene, and she admits that this was her first. “How long before they tell you?” she asks. Until now it’s only been the procedure that has worried her, if she could go through with it.

Ahead, a silver convertible cuts out of the middle lane, slices along in theirs, then knifes back in. “Oh, he could come to regret that,” Shelley says. She reaches over and pats Lorene’s arm. “Not too long, honey. Like a week. Don’t fret about it.”

Shelley should know, Lorene learns, what with all the tests she’s been through. The cane, the shoes, and the kink in her back came courtesy of a car crash, she and her son flipped over on a country road by a teenager in a Suburban reaching for a bottle of Mountain Dew. “Both of us weeks in the hospital,” she says. “They put all the pieces back together, thank God. But I haven’t been able to work a day since.”

She’d been a housecleaner. She relates this fact wistfully—as if she actually liked the job, Lorene thinks. “I used to do the mayor’s place,” Shelley boasts, tapping the dashboard smartly. “Every floor and wall and window in his house, I washed it.” Warshed. Lorene’s eyelids flutter. She’s just a computer tech, IT school all she could manage on her own, after she had to leave.

Shelley returns to her injuries: the months of rehab, learning to walk again, the chronic pain.

“That sounds dicey,” Lorene says.

“Dicey?” Shelley looks away and looks back. “Dicey? You try having your bones cracked open and metal rods stuck in ’em.” She fixes Lorene with a glare she can feel from the side, holding it until Lorene glances over.

“Sorry,” Lorene says. “I didn’t mean—”

“No, it’s on me,” Shelley sighs, turning away. “I guess all the anxiety is working my temper.”

She explains why she was there today, which has nothing to do with the accident: for an MRI. She has MS, but sometimes the disease goes into remission, she says. “I feel fine,” she declares, tapping one fist against her knee. “I feel strong.”

It’s time to squeeze back into the crowded right lanes. On the radio, a muffled voice implores them to tune in again tomorrow.

“You’re going to be okay,” Shelley says suddenly. “The mammogram—it’ll be clean. Don’t you worry.”

Lorene’s mouth opens. The fan’s breeze raises Shelley’s hair in a contiguous swath, as if it really is insulation. Lorene wonders about her son, if he looks after her.

“Oh,” Shelley says once they’re on Route 12. “Oh.”

Lorene’s index finger is jabbing at the dashboard buttons; they’re speeding toward a huge cattle lot, and if she doesn’t close the vents, the stench will gag them. To her left, a throbbing Harley keeps fishtailing toward her.

“I shouldn’t even ask you,” Shelley says.

“Ask what?” Ahead, a Prius and a farm truck are caught in lockstep. When the sliver of space between them widens, the biker, with a heart-clenching blast, jackhammers through it. Lorene finds the button, and the apricot smell returns.

“You weren’t, by any chance,” Shelley says, “planning to stop by a drugstore?”

“Not really.” Lorene scratches at a new hormone pimple on her chin. Shelley goes on: she’s been sitting so much, what with her twisted back, that she’s got—well, she says, now she’s supposed to use a sitz bath.

“There’s one close?” Lorene asks, and Shelley makes finny gestures with one hand, giving her directions.

*

As they step into a smell like freezer frost and plastic, Lorene feels a jolt of familiarity, like she’s reliving her lunch-hour errand. Shelley, saying she doesn’t want to put Lorene to any trouble, hobbles across the shiny floor toward the makeup aisle.

The pharmacy summons a customer, using only his first name. “But you’re his favorite niece,” Lorene’s mother had said.

When Lorene finds Shelley again, she and an employee with a long gray braid are commiserating about the construction on South Wright. “I don’t know why they had to dig it up to begin with,” Shelley complains.

Lorene carries the device out to her car, and Shelley guides her through the back route to Hidden Hills. The park’s cluster of trailers and single-wides stands out starkly on the flat expanse of Sebastopol Road.

“That’s it,” Shelley says, pointing. “Number four.”

Lorene leaves the car running; Shelley doesn’t move either, and after a while, Lorene cuts the engine and helps the older woman out of the Kia.

The wooden steps leading up to Shelley’s door have splintered, but the room they enter is airy and bright. “Well, then,” Lorene says, depositing the sitz appliance on a red vinyl kitchen chair and backing away.

Shelley’s face crumples.

Lorene’s hand squeezes the two keys, house and car. Beyond the living area, a dark corridor leads to three narrow closed doors. KIA, she thinks: a bad acronym, but you get what you can afford. She says, “So if you’re—”

“Would you,” Shelley interrupts. “Well, I shouldn’t. But with my ruined spine, I just can’t reach—” She wobbles on her cane, and Lorene’s eyes draw inward.

It turns out, though, that all Shelley needs is for her to change a light bulb. While Shelley roots in a drawer for a screwdriver, Lorene carries over the other kitchen chair. She thinks of the tech saying how those women tried to atone for something that wasn’t even their fault, that was just genetics, just family.

In the window above the sink, dangling bits of plasticky stained glass twirl on the breeze. Shelley’s counter is cluttered with boxes of cookies and cereal and raisins in clear produce bags, the gathered tops like drooping lilies. Pill bottles cover exactly half of a lazy Susan, and then there’s a neat, empty stretch before the toaster oven, its window burned caramel. The little paper reminders stuck to the freezer door herd together on the left side; there is nothing on the right.

Once Lorene is standing on the chair, reaching up to dismantle the ceiling fixture, Shelley keeps offering to help, to get her things or hold things for her. As Lorene extracts each screw, she drops it into the chest pocket of her flannel shirt, and then she climbs down with the dome of frosted glass.

The inside is dusty and filled with the small, dark bodies of moths and flies. Shelley’s gazing out the window, through the broken space between the jingling trinkets, so Lorene dumps the insects into the sink and dampens a paper towel to wipe out the glass. “That should give you a little more light,” she says, and she climbs up again to remove the useless bulb, its blunt nose the color of tobacco.

“If,” Shelley begins, still staring out the window. “If…”

The new bulb won’t screw in. Lorene tries turning it counterclockwise, to realign the threads.

“If,” Shelley says again, placing the old bulb on the Formica, where it rolls a dwindling pendulum. “If—”

Lorene’s hands freeze. Four ifs: that’s not good. Shelley should say it again.

“—my scan says I’m in remission, maybe Denny can come home.”

A muscle in Lorene’s neck spasms, and the tip enters the socket.

“The social worker pushed it.” Shelley passes Lorene the bowl. “She pushed it hard. Well, my illness had been barreling along there—the shakes, the blinding migraines. And so I really did think it would be better for both of us.” She goes on, and Lorene gathers that her son is mentally disabled—autistic or retarded, she can’t tell which. “But sometimes,” Shelley adds, swaying on her cane, “I miss him so terribly, and it’s just me here now, with no one to talk to.”

With her neck torqued to the side, Lorene slips the screws into place, tightening each manually, then reaches into her chest pocket for the screwdriver. It’s not there.

“Besides,” Shelley adds, with a laugh like fabric tearing, “even if I’m in remission, I’m won’t live forever. And he’ll have enough time in that place.”

“Do you get to see him much?” Lorene’s thigh trembles as she steps off the chair.

Shelley presses one finger to the tip of her nose. “Twice a week. The paratransit takes me.”

“That’s nice,” Lorene offers. The vinyl flooring has been made to look like interlocking bricks. She thinks about the bottle of Advil in her car, how she can take one once she’s back on Highway 12.

“Even though, really, he couldn’t do very much—could hardly help out at all. And at my age, too. Well, he could have changed that bulb,” Shelley says, jerking her chin toward the fixture. “But now I have to do every last thing myself, and it’s hard.”

Lorene surveys the kitchen, trying to remember where she put the screwdriver. The mix of cluttered and empty, the gaps, suddenly falls into a pattern, and her eyebrows rise: that’s where all the son’s things were.

The garbage bin is under the sink, and when Lorene swings the cabinet door open to throw out the old bulb, she bangs it into the chair. “Did you see where I put the screwdriver?” she asks. Shelley points to her purse, a black nylon carryall with plastic studs on the bottom. “I might’ve laid it back there,” she says. Lorene picks the handbag up to look behind it, and there’s the little pot of flowers.

It’s not even a real pot, just a plastic margarine tub. In that bed of hardening mud, Lorene figures, the striped seeds must have been buried close together. They took hold and pushed their heads through, and now from thick, rough stems loll four shaggy golden disks, their spadelike leaves dull and hairy. Dwarf sunflowers, squat and brutish. Like the painting in the mammography room. Four sunflowers, one for each—

Pacific Ocean. The Pacific Ocean is eighteen miles away. Blue waves against the pale sand, white foam rippling to the shore, spindrift farther out, like galloping horses—

“…take that.”

Lorene hears vaguely under the blood pounding in her ears, and the purse is gone from her hands.

“He grew those for me. Dug the dirt out from a tree pit there,” Shelley adds, her eyes pink like a rabbit’s.

My handsome uncle, Lorene thinks. Four times.

Lorene finally recognizes the screwdriver next to the flowers and tentacles one hand out for it, her neck clenching again, then reaches for the chair and misses grasping its back. “Who’s going to take care of me now?” Shelley’s wailing as Lorene raises one foot onto the seat, the whole room tilting.

Shelley lunges at her, her big black cane raised. Lorene drops the screwdriver and turtles her head, but as the pain twists her neck, she sees those sunflowers again, their monstrous faces.

The other four flash through her mind then. How none of them—not her parents or her sister or her cousin Chellie, who’d been her best friend, believed her.

Instead of covering up, Lorene attacks.

Shelley’s forearms are strong, like a man’s, like the thick ropes that tie up large ships—from all her years of scouring floors, Lorene thinks. They grapple at each other, and the cane clatters to the floor.

Lorene’s splayed fingers thrust Shelley away, a snarl screeching up her throat. The older woman flails at the air, her big jaw flung back, her weak leg losing contact.

Lorene dives forward and clamps her around the neck and one arm, part lifeguard’s cross-chest carry, part chokehold, and staggers under Shelley’s dense weight until her hip hits the counter.

“I thought you were going to fall,” Shelley croaks.

There’s a clawing in Lorene’s chest, Shelley’s asbestos hair veiling her nose and mouth.

“It’s uneven.” Shelley points at the fake brickwork under the chair, where one rusty leg tips on a raised knot.

Lorene’s legs turn to water and she sinks, her body cushioning Shelley’s when they hit the floor. Shelley scrabbles away until she’s against the cabinets. “Sorry,” Lorene wheezes, her hands tingling with pinpricks, her arms as light as air.

“I can’t believe I let them take him away,” Shelley sobs, her chin trembling, like the awful thing Lorene has done doesn’t matter anymore. She tries to draw her legs in, but one won’t bend very far, and she gulps and pushes her glasses up to press her hands against her eyes. “Why did I do that,” she moans.

Lorene’s chest feels stamped flat, as if her whole body is vised in the mammography machine. “It’s not your fault,” she manages to rasp.

Shelley wipes her eyes. When she reseats her glasses and sees Lorene, she startles. “Don’t worry,” she says. “Your test will be clean.”

“It’s not your fault,” Lorene repeats, one thumbnail pushing a painful crescent into the mortar line of the vinyl brickwork, and Shelley again says, “Your test will be clean.” Then their eyes meet, and they both let out a crazy laugh.

“Your test will be clean,” Lorene tells Shelley, finally understanding that this is what she most wants to hear. Pulling herself to her feet, she steps over on shaky legs to help the older woman up.

“And it’s not your fault,” Shelley says, completing the reversal, one hand clutching the countertop. Then she frowns.

“Or maybe it is,” she considers, her walleye drifting to the side as if to see around Lorene, to whatever she’s hiding behind her back. “I don’t even know you.”

But now Lorene does. She slips off her flannel shirt, feeling the breeze on her arms, and her rib cage expands with air. It wasn’t her fault. And four doesn’t kill you. That was so many years ago, and look: she’s still here.

pencil

Bonnie Thompson is a freelance book editor. Her fiction has been published in a handful of literary magazines, including the South Dakota Review and the Elysian Fields Quarterly. Email: bthompson.xyz[at]gmail.com

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The Convention

Fiction
Bonnie Thompson


Photo Credit: Emily Rose/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Photo Credit: Emily Rose/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

If Isabelle, she wonders, slipping into her black cocktail dress, gets cropped to Izzy, then does Ysabel become Yzzy? A laugh escapes her as she crosses the room and shoulders the heavy hotel window open, letting in the clamor of the cabs and buses below, and she leans out and breathes in the city’s smoke and steam. The name, she thinks as an ambulance races past, is a cipher, a rune from a lost civilization. A palindrome, even, the same in forward as in reverse.

She loops two slim silver bangles over her wrist, captivated by the glittering skyline, and it occurs to her that if she were to write it on one of those cheerful “My name is” stickers, people might not understand. Maybe they’d look from the hieroglyphics to her face in bewilderment, expecting a Kyrgyzstani or a Cardassian or a crone from ancient Sumer, come to fulfill a mythic curse.

Does it matter what bland Kathy or Ann or Susan she leaves behind? Her skin tingles as she applies eyeliner, sweeping it past the outer corners of her lids in a way that seems right for Yzzy. And then she heads down to the lobby and uses a black Sharpie to draw clear, straight capital letters on the white name tag, and raises her head and steps into the hubbub of the opening night festivities of the Convention of the Association of Organizations. In the Grand Ballroom she’s a stranger to everyone, excepting the five coworkers she shared an Airbus with.

She thinks that might be where the trouble starts, but it isn’t. Her officemates, every corporate-minded one of them strenuously swimming upstream, have zero interest in her presence here. After all, she is only support staff, appended at the last minute for her behind-the-scenes magic. She stands under a cut-glass chandelier, for a moment the one still figure in the bubbling crowd, the swirl of perfumes tickling her nose, the downy hair on her bare arms rising with the pop and crackle of the igniting party.

The man who calls her “Yizzie” begins it, unfolding a creased flyer and trying to win her interest in a patent he’s working on. A sheen of perspiration coats his scalp, a skinny tie garrotes his neck, and every time she says something encouraging, he answers, “Yes, but,” bobbing his head like a mechanical chicken. The roadblock, he tells her as the burgundy carpet drowns her dainty kitten heels, is that he needs funding.

She aims for the movable mahogany bar and wedges herself in up front. To her right, a woman with a smooth, assured voice is ordering a glass of pinot grigio.

“That sounds refreshing,” says Yzzy with a smile. “One for me, too.”

As the tide of thirsty conventioneers sluices them off to the side, the woman takes Yzzy’s elbow and segues into a jeremiad about the association’s illogical election procedures—having been, Yzzy gathers, repeatedly unsuccessful. Her wiry hair is tourniqueted into a bun the shape of an engorged tick, and when, in indignation, she shakes her head, the tick wobbles like it’s going to drop off. As the plastic cup of thin wine sweats into Yzzy’s palms, her mind ping-pongs between whether or not she should tell the woman about the coral lipstick smeared over her front teeth.

She is rescued from this quandary: a man who’s positive he knew her a long time ago folds her into a familiar hug, her nose flattened against the naphthalene scratchiness of his checked sport coat. Despite her name tag and her glass of wine, he keeps calling her Lisa and insisting that she let him fetch her a Manhattan. His jacket is tight under the arms, and his belt is on its last notch, the previous two holes marked with puckered crescents. “This bartender,” he confides, blotting the mist from his eyes, “is a diamond in the rough. No one here—” He glances around and is bumped by two men in a rush, and he stumbles and apologizes and turns back to her. “No one appreciates his gift. The elegant balance, the complexity he’s achieved,” he says, and as the ice cubes clink together in wordless chorus, Yzzy’s eyes, too, grow moist.

She extricates herself from one nutbutton after another, baffled. Is it off-putting, she wonders, the alias? Or perhaps it’s the eyeliner. Somehow, in this new, large group, no one but the oddballs will even meet her gaze.

So this, she thinks, edging her way around the jagged perimeter of the crowd, is probably the sum total of life for Liz LaMosca, the coworker everyone shuns: a stick insect who keeps seven cats in a studio apartment and speaks with a voice like Rice Krispies falling from a great height into a small hole. The regular people avoid you, and the misfits swarm like flies.

The fire door has been propped open, to bleed off some of the party’s cloying warmth; the exit leads to a narrow, unlit alley. Her spiky heels grind against the grainy asphalt, and in the damp night air, a chill ripples through her. Inside, the clumps of people divide and converge. She averts her head but still hears them gabbling and guffawing, the swish of wool against silk.

It’s self-segregating, she sees; it always has been. Human nature at its most fundamental: those people there, these other people here.

“Yzzy?” a woman’s voice inside peals. Her heart leaps like a rising fish, and she turns, her mouth open. The woman laughs with a sound like pearls scattering across a glass counter. “He isn’t! Is he?”

Yzzy turns away, her chin dropping to her chest. There is something wet on her bodice, and she whisks a hand over it. On her name tag, the Zs look the same upside down, but the Ys are as strong as little Eiffel Towers. Her shoulders draw back. Person by person, she decides, there’s a way to right the balance.

Wending briskly through the crowd, she returns to the tinkerer. She tells him that if he wants the patent, what he has to do is finish the invention. It’s not funding he needs, it’s a prototype and an application, and with new resolve, he admits that she’s right. Above his head, the chandelier’s glass teardrops sparkle with a hundred rainbows, and her smile is so wide that the corners of her lips crack. Then he taps her forearm twice and says, “But, Yizzie, here’s what you don’t understand.”

Scattered snippets from the crowd filter her way, and as he drones, she latches onto each in turn, seeking the key: “Bill, we’ll hook you up with…,” “…can count on Terry here,” “…folks in D.C.,” “…LaMosca, breath like kitty lit—”

In the ladies’ room, washing her hands just for the comfort of the warm water, she is joined by the woman with election issues. She keeps her eyes focused straight ahead, but the mirror makes the name on her sticker softer, more compassionate: Yssy. As the hand dryer sighs itself to silence, she gestures, showing her colleague the errant lipstick. “Oh my!” she says, cleaning the smears off her enamel with the corner of a Kleenex. Taking a deep breath, Yzzy mentions that her bun has begun to unravel, and the woman seizes it, tugs until it’s lumpy. Then she hunts in her purse for her tube of lipstick and lays on a fresh coat.

The guy with the sublime Manhattans is now too pie-eyed to understand much of anything. She leads him to the revolving door—the two of them caught in the same quarter slice, performing a clumsy cha-cha-cha—and flags him a cab. “You always were a doll, Lisa,” he says, his eyes streaming. He presses her thin hand between his bready palms, and deep in her chest, something delicate cracks.

In the dim and drafty hallway outside the Grand Ballroom, the festive conviviality on the other side is muffled to a nattering babel behind the big double doors. She blinks at the guard, her lashes as whispery as veined wings, and points to her name tag, but he shakes his head. She skitters back. He needs the official pass: the pricey little badge that gets you into the exhibition hall and all the panel discussions and, yes, the feeding frenzy of the big first-night open bar.

Her neck bowed, she unbuckles her purse and digs it out from the compartment under the flap. He carefully inspects the convention logo and her name, beneath the plastic sleeve, but she is already swiping with the heel of one hand, removing the exotic eyeliner. “Welcome back,” he says, his thumbnail flicking something dark from between his teeth, “to the convention, Miss LaMosca.”

pencilBonnie Thompson is a freelance book editor. Her fiction has been published in a handful of literary magazines, including the South Dakota Review and the Elysian Fields Quarterly. Email: bthompson.xyz[at]gmail.com

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