reviewed by Adam Palumbo
The latter half of the twentieth century saw television and film arise as the dominant media vehicles in American culture, and Patrick Ryan Frank’s poetry collection The Opposite of People seeks to interrogate the way these performance media are reflected in the modern consciousness. With the re-casting of typical television and film tropes (commercials, recognizable personalities, and genres-in-caricature), The Opposite of People is as enlightened and poignant to the media-saturated mind as it is relevant to the digital age.
Beginning with the poem “Silent Film,” the book is divided into three sections, reflecting the television time slots—“Day Time,” “Prime Time,” and “Late Night”—a construct that does well to gird the conceit of the entire book. Frank enlivens characters, actors, and genres from throughout the world of film and television, including Marilyn Monroe, Gary Cooper, the Marlboro Man, and Frank Sinatra, to explore the ideals and sins of the past.
Frank also constructs stories-within-stories, like in the poem “Action/Adventure,” which is actually about an insurance adjuster’s fantasies upon seeing his office building blown up by a villain, his henchmen, and “one unkillable cop.” In “Midnight Cowboy,” the poet re-imagines a scene from the eponymous 1969 movie:
The two men sitting in the coppered dark
of the skin-flick theater know their knees will touch.
And then? An empty wallet at your hip
will only buy a lonely night. And this
is the awkward, desperate truth of sex and cash:
without some, you can’t get some; without any,
you die. . . .
This framing device of film and television means that the book is not as autobiographical as many typical contemporary lyric collections, but there are brief admittances of a personal past or a real self lurking backstage. Frank uses himself as the subject of several poems to study stereotypical roles that might be found in various plots: “Patrick Ryan Frank as the Detective,” “Patrick Ryan Frank as the Other Woman,” or “Patrick Ryan Frank as the Russian.” The reader can’t help but think the obsession with television and the movies must have come from somewhere—as the author bio at the end of the book states, the poet “grew up in front of a television set in rural Michigan.”
Besides the characters he revives and the plots he constructs, Frank’s poetry is marvelous with a turn of phrase and it is, in fact, technically rigorous. Like in the poem “This Must Be The Place,” where he says, “It eats at you, the fact that you’ve been fooled / into believing what you have is real / quietly asking the movies how to feel.” Frank’s poetry makes use of a wide range of half-rhyme and slant rhyme, consonance, and delightful wordplay. His line breaks are crisp and controlled, but he employs enjambments and caesurae with as equal power as end-stopped lines. In “Miss Cleo Can Help,” the poet says,
Bad times. A birthmarked man. A broke-down car.
I see it all: the cards laid out, the stars
laid out in lines. I’ll tell you what they mean
while the TV frame gets smaller and my face,
resigned like someone’s mother, fills the screen
as if you, with every word that I say,
were coming closer. What do you want to hear?
The money’s coming, the baby’s daddy’s gone.
You’ll be alright if you just get over that fear
. . . .
In this poem, Frank reimagines the infamous psychic interacting with a caller on her pay-per-call psychic service program, popular in the late 1990s. While several of the poem’s lines are end rhymed (“mean”/”screen” and “hear”/”fear”), Frank also employs internal rhymes and consonance (as with “lines”/”resigned,” “cars”/”cards,” and “coming closer”). There are also several poems that could fall into the broad categorization of “fourteeners,” with just as many lines but none of the rhyme scheme of the sonnet. These technical constructions do exactly what they should: provide the language of the poetry a structure from which to reach out to the reader.
Netflix, HBO, and the specter of Hollywood as presented in The Opposite of People make for a very pressing examination of American culture and life. By way of screens silver and golden, Patrick Ryan Frank makes his readers confront the way in which these cultural touchstones have been threaded into their lives. In these powerful and precious poems, the accumulated influence of performance media are put on show until the curtain closes once more.
Tucked down an alley in the once-stately Old Capital neighborhood, a small café, Chez Magnifique, had been operating business-as-usual right through the Great Drought. It never shut down, never seemed to run out of anything, never raised its prices. Customers could still get a slice of carrot cake for $3.75, a latte for $3.50. The service was fast and courteous and the patrons were unfailingly civil.
“Delightful,” said Mr. James, sipping from a chipped china cup.
“Marvelous,” said Ms. White, dabbing orange-colored crumbs from the folds at the corners of her mouth.
“Delectable,” said Mr. Vellum, gesticulating with his fork.
“Magnifique!” said Mrs. Gallow with a theatrical wink.
All four chuckled voluminously at the small, well-worn joke until their chuckles transformed into thick, raspy wheezes. They were dressed formally—the men in threadbare, three-piece tweed suits and the women in faded satin gowns. The customers and their clothing all appeared advanced in age—balding, blotchy—but meticulously cared-for.
At the next table a small boy sat with his mother. Theirs were unfamiliar faces in a place dominated by reliable regulars. Their manners and mode of dress were casual by comparison.
“What’s the matter, Jeffy? Don’t you like your cookie?”
The boy’s face was squashed like a rotted pumpkin. His upper lip and eyebrows met at his nose in an expression of disgust. He raked his tongue with a napkin. The mother looked puzzled. A peanut butter cookie sat on a stoneware plate in front of the boy, with one child-sized bite taken out.
“If you don’t eat your cookie, mommy will!” said the mother.
She picked up the cookie and moved it to her mouth. The boy did not react. The mother took a small bite from the edge of the cookie; her mouth distorted involuntarily and her throat convulsed. She spat the bit of cookie into a napkin and waved to the waiter, who stood behind the counter.
“Excuse me!” the mother called.
The waiter turned to face the mother, but didn’t move from behind the counter.
“Is something the matter, ma’am?”
“Yes,” said the mother. “Something’s wrong with this cookie. I think it’s gone bad.”
“I don’t see how,” said the waiter. “It was baked fresh this morning.”
“Still,” said the mother. “There’s something off. See for yourself.”
The waiter moved reluctantly from behind the counter to the table where the mother and son sat. He placed the fingertips of his right hand lightly on the tattered tablecloth and stared down at the cookie on its plate.
“It looks fine,” he said.
“Try it,” the mother urged. She pushed the plate toward the waiter.
“After you’re eaten from it?” said the waiter. “Honestly, ma’am, I have no idea what sorts of sicknesses you and your child might be carrying.”
He raised an eyebrow.
“No offense,” he added.
“Then try another from the same batch. Or break a piece from an edge where we didn’t bite. For heaven’s sake, you don’t want to be serving bad cookies, do you?”
The waiter spoke between pursed lips.
“Very well,” he said.
He broke a crumb-sized morsel from an unbitten edge of the cookie and placed it in his mouth. As he bit down and chewed, an expression of concentration crossed his face. The woman heard a gritty, grinding sound from between the waiter’s teeth.
“It tastes fine to me,” he said. His eyes squinted while the rest of his face forced a neutral expression.
“It’s not fine,” the woman said. “We’d like something else instead.”
“Are you sure?” said the waiter. “If you don’t like this perfectly good cookie, maybe this place just doesn’t suit you. Perhaps you would be more content elsewhere.”
“Excuse me?” said the woman. “We’re paying customers. Have I done something wrong? Are we unwelcome?”
“I’m just trying to be helpful,” said the waiter.
“Let us have a slice of that cheesecake, would you?”
The woman pointed to a glass pastry case at the end of the service counter.
“Certainly,” said the waiter.
Behind the counter, he pulled a plate from the top of a tall stack, and took a tarnished pie server from a bin of utensils by a small sink. He reached into the case through an open space where a pane was missing. He placed the cheesecake delicately—ceremoniously—on a plate, then walked back and dropped the plate, unceremoniously, on the table in front of the woman. He plunked a fork down so it bounced slightly before settling.
“Thank you,” said the woman.
“Certainly,” said the waiter.
The woman lifted the fork and perforated the cheesecake. It gave a gritty resistance that reminded her of the cookie. She raised the fork to her mouth and closed her lips around it. Again, the grimace. Again, the convulsion. Again, she spit the clump of grainy pulp into a napkin.
The woman looked at the waiter. He was staring back at her, waiting.
“This is bad, too,” said the woman. “Just like the cookie.”
“I don’t know what to tell you,” said the waiter. “The other customers seem to be satisfied. Maybe it’s just you.”
“Okay,” said the woman. “I can take a hint. We’re leaving.”
“Have a pleasant day,” said the waiter, tonelessly.
The woman took her son’s hand and they walked out together, the woman shaking her head, the boy still grimacing, his lip curled tightly up under his nose. The waiter stood behind the counter wiping his hands on a dishtowel. He watched their backs as they left.
Mrs. Gallow, still seated with her friends, turned in her chair and addressed the waiter.
“Why, whatever was the matter with them, dear?”
“Seems they didn’t like the food.”
“Didn’t like it? Why, that’s preposterous. Unheard of. Un—”
Mrs. Gallow’s remark was interrupted by a stifled gagging sound, followed by a coughing fit. It was a wet, hacking cough. She and the waiter both waited for it to subside. When it did, she continued speaking as if nothing had happened.
“After all, Marcel, everyone knows that, since—well, since the rains stopped—this is the only place in town where the food is any good at all. Anyone with a functioning tastebud agrees.”
Mrs. Gallow’s tablemates nodded vigorously in agreement, releasing little puffs of white, powdery makeup from their collars.
“Thank you, Mrs. Gallow,” said the waiter. “You know just how to nurse my ego back to health.”
Mrs. Gallow and the waiter shared a smile that almost broke into laughter, but didn’t quite. The smiles hovered there, held by sheer determination, and then faded.
“I should have known better,” the woman said.
She had led her son by the hand out the door and then out of the dim alleyway, back into the late-afternoon sun.
“I just should have known better,” she repeated. “Should have known it was too good to be true.”
The woman’s name was Dolores Blunt. She was thirty-two, a single mother of her single son, Jeffrey, who was five—or, as Jeffrey would say, five and a quarter. Dolores had spotted the inconspicuous signboard for Chez Magnifique as she and Jeffrey walked through the Old Capital, a part of the city unfamiliar to them. Jeffrey had just been immunized at an improvised clinic set up in an abandoned storefront and Dolores thought she might be able to buy him a treat for his patience and bravery. She felt robbed—duped—by the disappointing experience. Typically, no one promised her anything. She’d learned to expect nothing, to be content with what she received. But this—the raising, and then the dashing, of her hopes, however small, however low the stakes—felt like an unfathomable betrayal.
Dolores and Jeffery had taken a convoluted, two-hour, four-transfer bus ride to get there, and it would take them as long, on the same set of buses, to get back.
“Come on, Jeffy, we need to get home.”
“But I’m hungry.”
“I know, sweetie. We’ll have dinner when we get there.”
They walked three more blocks to the station, arriving just in time to climb onto a departing bus. Outside the windows they watched the city lurch into motion and slink slowly by. More than half of the storefronts were vacant or showed signs of distress–cracked panes, faded going-out-of-business signs, steel bars, chain-link, padlocks. There wasn’t much, and what there was, was tenaciously protected.
Dolores and Jeffrey sat close together watching the scenery. Frequently Jeffrey would reach over, tug on the frayed hem of Dolores’s sweater and say, “Mommy, look!” Dolores would reply, “Look at what, Jeffy?” even when it was obvious what the boy was pointing at. This was her way of urging him to describe, to develop his language, to make his own sense of what he saw.
After a while Jeffrey dozed against Dolores’s arm. She continued to watch the buildings and people trickle by. Each time they reached their transfer, Dolores lifted Jeffrey from his seat. Finally, the last bus pulled into the station near their home.
“Wake up, baby,” she said. “It’s our stop.”
They stepped off the bus and quickly walked the three blocks home. Dolores was anxious and tugged at Jeffrey’s hand. When they reached their building, Dolores keyed into the exterior door. She had her keys out ahead of time so they could duck in quickly, spending as little time as possible standing still on the street. When the building door clicked shut behind them, Dolores relaxed some. They walked down the long hallway to their apartment, Dolores keyed in again, and then shut, latched, and bolted the door behind them. Her shoulders dropped slightly and she took, without realizing it, her first deep breath in hours.
“I’m still hungry,” said Jeffrey.
“I know, sweetie,” said Dolores. “I’ll make us dinner.”
Dolores went to the cupboard and pulled out two foil packets, each the size and shape of a slice of bread. She took down two bowls, ripped open the packets, and dumped out the contents: a grey powder that looked like household dust. It was a synthetic macronutrient blend—more nutritionally sound than dust, but not much tastier. From the refrigerator, Dolores took a small jug of water. She measured a few spoonfuls into each of the bowls, and stirred until the dust was moistened into a pasty muck. All the while, she shook her head, trying to remove the memory of the café. She began to wonder whether she had imagined it, whether the whole thing had been a sort of urban mirage, summoned by a cocktail of austerity, nostalgia, and desire. But, no: the anger, tying knots in her gut, was very real indeed.
She set the two bowls and two clean spoons on a folding table where two plastic chairs sat waiting. Jeffrey came in from the living room, his coat and shoes still on. They sat down, picked up their spoons, and ate together in silence.
In the small commercial kitchen, through the velvet-curtained doorway behind the counter of Chez Magnifique, Marcel, the waiter, stood in the glow of a single bare lightbulb surveying his work. He stood over a stainless steel table scattered with cookie cutters, pie plates, cake tins, loaf pans, gelatin molds, icing bags, and other baking paraphernalia. The table stood against a bare cinderblock wall. On the wall, above the table, a shelf was mounted. Lined up on the shelf were tubs, each one filled with a thick, heavy, grainy paste. Using an ice cream scoop, Marcel spooned out the pastes and packed them into the various molds, squeezed them through the piping bags. He shaped them to resemble cookies, cakes, pies, and other pastries.
Marcel made the paste himself. He made it from sand, with a minimal amount of water added–not the precious, potable water that was government-rationed, but the murky wash water, which was less closely guarded, and came at less of a premium. The sand he got from farmers, whose desertified land was good for nothing else, as it had not produced crops for several seasons. They parted with the sandy soil for free, or nearly free—dirt cheap, Marcel sometimes joked, generally receiving a dry and lifeless response from the farmers. The only stipulation was that Marcel had to go and pick it up himself—which he did, once a week, with a borrowed cart that he pulled behind his careworn bicycle, riding beyond the city to the desolate rural outlands.
At the café, Marcel had a small but devoted clientele. For the most part they either had been, or now claimed they had been, members of the socio-economic elite—former aristocrats of the city. Now, they folded themselves into his chairs every day to tell each other grandiose, meandering anecdotes and eat cakes made of sand.
When Marcel had finished shaping and arranging, he covered his creations with damp towels and placed steel storage tubs upside-down over top, to seal in the moisture and keep them ‘fresh.’ This kind of effort seemed almost perverse, but he knew his livelihood depended upon people buying into his illusion, and even people who ate dirt wanted to eat the best-looking dirt they could get.
When Marcel’s preparations were complete, he pulled a chain to douse the light. Then he stepped out into the back-alley darkness, and the door swung shut and locked behind him. The city no longer supplied electricity to the lampposts, so even out on the sidewalks, the night was dense with deep, shadowy pockets. At irregular intervals, coffee-can lanterns burned in shop windows, the only visible signs of life.
Marcel ducked into one of these fire-lit storefronts. The proprietress was ancient—she handled the money and goods with veiny, arthritic claws. Her eyes shone from deep-sunk caves. Marcel assumed a son or grandson must have been waiting in the back room—surely a woman in her condition couldn’t be tending the place alone—she’d be too tempting a target for thieves.
Using money from the day’s sales—money drastically devalued, but not quite worthless yet—Marcel bought a small paper packet of cornmeal and a thumb-sized, waxy nugget of lard. Where such scarce commodities as grain and lard came from, even in such tiny quantities, Marcel did not know, did not ask, tried not to even think about, and suspected his ignorance might be for the best.
As he continued walking, he heard faint wails and banging echoes in the distance. Finally, he arrived at a dilapidated apartment block, where he turned a key to unlock two deadbolts and then the doorknob itself, to find that the door was chained from within.
“Pssst!” said Marcel.
“Who is it?” said a small, high-pitched voice from inside the door.
“It’s me, your papa!” said Marcel. “Who else?”
“My papa who?” said the little voice.
“Your papa, Marcel!”
“My papa Marcel who?”
The little voice giggled. It was a game Marcel’s young son Michel played often.
“Okay, little one: open up,” said Marcel. “Papa is tired.”
The door closed to a crack, then swung open to reveal little Michel standing in patched red pajamas in the darkened room, grinning. As Marcel entered and shut the door behind him, Michel wrapped his arms around his father’s knees and squeezed tight.
“Where’s your nana?” asked Marcel.
There was a soft glow from down the apartment’s central hallway.
“Snoring in her chair.”
Marcel made a game of walking around with his son latched to his legs. He waddled like a penguin to the kitchen, where he set down the packets of corn meal and shortening and lit a burner on a small, portable, propane stove. He took a pan from a hook on the wall, put the small hunk of lard in the pan, and while the fat melted, he scooped out the cornmeal, added a small amount of clean water, and kneaded it together. Marcel formed the meal-mush into patties and dropped them, one at a time, into the larded pan. When the cakes had browned, Marcel took a towel from a shelf nearby. He folded it twice, set in on the counter and set the pan, still hot from the burner, onto the towel. He picked Michel up, and sat the boy on the counter next to the pan of corn cakes. Marcel took one of the cakes, blew across it, and handed it to Michel, who received it eagerly with both hands. Marcel took a cake for himself and chewed it slowly, while the boy devoured the first one, then two more, before looking suddenly very sleepy.
Marcel carried his son down the hall and put him to bed, before returning to the kitchen to wrap up the last of the corn cakes, which sat cold in the pan.
“Gout,” said Mr. James. “It must be. I’m convinced of it.”
“Do you think?” asked Ms. White. She pursed her lips. “I’m certainly not a doctor,” she said. “I suppose I’ll take your word for it.”
Mrs. Gallow had not shown up at Chez Magnifique that morning. Her friends sat around their usual table speculating about her absence.
“I must agree,” said Mr. Vellum, nibbling at a slice of cake. “What else would she be suffering from but gout? It’s obvious: too much rich, decadent food!”
“Indeed!” said Mr. James. The muscles of his face twitched into a strained smile. He looked over at Marcel, who was working quietly behind the counter.
“Isn’t that right, Marcel? Too much rich food around here?”
Marcel looked up when he heard his name. He nodded at Mr. James, and smiled with the same visible strain. Mr. James coughed into his handkerchief. A brown, grainy clump appeared alongside a fresh, wet spot of red. He drew the cloth away and stuffed it in his vest pocket. Marcel nodded, his forehead tight, and then he turned away, wiping his hands on a dishtowel.
Just then, the café door swung wide, slamming loudly against the wall. Dolores stood silhouetted in the doorway. Marcel looked up, and at first he didn’t recognize her.
“Good morning,” he said. “Welcome to Chez—”
He recognized her mid-sentence.
“Welcome back,” he said. “I’m surprised to see you again.”
“What’s good today?” she said.
“I—everything is good,” he said. “I made it myself, fresh this morning.”
“Well then, I’ll take one of those, and one of those, and one of those,” said Dolores, pointing at three of the trays in the display case.
Marcel hesitated, then nodded and bowed slightly.
“Very good,” he said.
He kept his eyes on Dolores as he plated the pastries and handed them to her on a dented, tarnished metal tray. She took them to a corner table and sat facing the wall, away from the counter and the group of regulars. She surveyed the collection in front of her: a slice of orange-ish carrot cake, a square of dark fudge, and a tan-and-brown éclair—all perfectly formed in their palette of earth tones. Dolores reached out and pressed a forefinger into the carrot cake. Its point crumbled like an arid cliffside. She repeated this several times, until the whole slice had eroded away, revealing not the sponginess of cake, but the granularity of sand. She picked up the fudge square, palmed it, and closed her hand around it, making a fist. She watched the corners ooze between her fingers. She rubbed the pads of her thumb and forefinger together and felt the grit, heard it grinding against itself. The éclair she laid flat on one hand, and then pressed and slid the other hand over top of it, crumbling it apart, causing bits to rain down onto the plates and the tray in front of her. She took a moment to gaze at the ruins before she picked up the tray and returned to the counter. Marcel had his back to her. He pretended to be busy at the sink.
“I’m finished,” she said.
Marcel turned and looked at Dolores, then down at the tray. He frowned.
“And, how was everything?”
“A little dry,” said Dolores. “Suppose I could get something to wash it down?”
Marcel searched Dolores’ face.
“Of course,” he said. “What would you like?”
“Very good,” he said. “Go ahead to your table, I’ll bring it out.”
“No thanks,” she said. “I’d like to watch you pour it.”
Marcel stared at Dolores for a long moment. He could see it had become a standoff. He leaned toward her and motioned her closer to the counter.
“Would you like a tour of the kitchen?” he said. “I can show you where I make everything. Since you seem so interested.”
Dolores suddenly felt nervous. She had a vision of being bludgeoned with a rolling pin. However, her curiosity outweighed her fear, and she thought, perhaps foolishly, that she could handle any threat this relatively slight man might pose. She walked around the end of the counter and followed Marcel behind the curtain and into the kitchen.
“As you can see, this is a café. Nothing more, nothing less,” he said quietly when they were both behind the curtain.
“A café that sells pastries made of dirt? How do you keep your customers?”
“My customers—” he began, then paused to consider. “My regular customers get what they’ve come for.”
Dolores snorted and glanced around the small kitchen. She paced across to the prep table where Marcel made his pastries. She lifted the lid from one of the bins and stuck her hand into the sand, pulled out a fistful and sifted it through her fingers. She reached into another bin, grabbed a handful, and dusted it onto the table. There was a bucket of brown water nearby, and she reached into this, too, cupping her hand and drawing out a palmful. She mixed the water with the sand and made a paste. She formed the paste into a small ball, and then flattened in into the shape of a cookie, a pasty puck.
She lifted the grainy lump to her mouth, took a bite, and swallowed hard. Her jaw tensed, and she retched, convulsed, and vomited onto the floor. The rest of the paste-cookie, which was still in her hand, she flung against the wall where it splattered into a spray of particles that fell like fireworks.
“It makes them happy,” said Marcel.
“It’s a lie!” said Dolores.
Marcel gave an almost-imperceptible shrug.
Dolores clutched the metal prep table, with its row of inset bins full of dirt and water. She tugged at its beveled edge, tried to topple it, wanted desperately to see it all splattered across the floor. But the table was bolted to the wall and didn’t budge. She tried again, leaned into it, applied all the weight and leverage she could muster. Veins bulged at her temples and wrists, until finally her arms went limp and fell at her sides.
Dolores began to cry silently. Marcel walked across and touched her on the shoulder, but she swatted his hand away, and then swung wildly, hitting the side of his face, hard, with a half-open fist. Marcel reached up to touch the rising welt below his eye, and Dolores ran out of the kitchen, through the café, into the alley. Outside, she spat to remove the last of the dirt and the taste of bile. She wiped her eyes to better see through her tears. She exited the alley onto the sidewalk, and by the time she got to the bus stop she had finished crying and was ready for the long ride home.
Marcel returned from the kitchen into the dining room of Chez Magnifique. Mr. James was coughing loudly. He held his handkerchief to his mouth. The center of it, which had been a dingy gray, was now soaked a deep, shiny red. Mrs. White fanned herself with a napkin from the table. Mr. Vellum leaned over and patted Mr. James gently on the back.
“Hey there, old boy, are you all right?”
Mr. James said nothing. His eyelids drooped and he collapsed forward on the table. A red splotch spread from his mouth across the white linen of the tablecloth, crawling toward his companions, seeping underneath their plates and cups and saucers.
“Heavens,” said Mrs. White. She looked like she might faint.
“Dear boy,” said Mr. Vellum. “Well, I think… rather…shall we? Is it that time?”
“Oh, yes, I’d say so,” said Mrs. White.
Mr. Vellum got up, pushed in his chair, and walked around to pull out Mrs. White’s chair as she stood. He offered his elbow, which she gripped for balance with her gloved hand, and the two of them walked out of the café together, acting for all the world like nothing had happened, like Mr. James was only napping after eating too much sugar.
Marcel stared from behind the counter. He opened his mouth, as if to call to the retreating pair, but no sound came out. For a few moments, he stood there, wringing a dishtowel between his hands. Then he turned toward the doorway leading to the kitchen. Just beyond the curtain, he could see a mop and bucket leaning together conspiratorially.
Outside the café, all over the city, a red-brown rain began to fall, smearing and spattering the parched, dusty buildings and the thirsty ground. It was the first time in years anything had fallen from the sky, and at first it seemed it must be a hallucination. As Dolores rode toward home, she noticed the tinted liquid hitting the windows of the bus and running down in rivulets, like so many rust-colored snakes. She slid her window open and reached a hand out to feel the dampness on her skin. She thought she should probably feel excited, or relieved, or maybe even scared—the color was so strange, not like the rain she remembered. But the truth was, aside from the cool moisture of the droplets, aside from the swaying lull of the rolling bus, she didn’t really feel anything at all.
Matt Tompkins has an e-book, Studies in Hybrid Morphology, out now from tNY Press. A chapbook, Souvenirs and Other Stories, is forthcoming from Conium Press. Matt’s stories have appeared in Little Patuxent Review, New Haven Review, Post Road, and other journals. He works in a library and lives in upstate New York with his wife (who kindly reads his first drafts), his daughter (who prefers picture books) and his cat (who is illiterate).
Kyle Ellingson lives in Saint Paul, MN, where he works for Garrison Keillor’s Common Good Books. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as Sou’wester, Bluestem Online, Euphony, and Pacifica Review. His short story, “Our Employer,” is forthcoming to Carolina Quarterly and centers around the life of a young male celebrity as he is observed by a group of caretakers and handlers who narrate and form the celebrity’s identity. Observations of stardom, the representation of luxury, and the disturbing hypocrisies of being in the public eye come to bear in creating an “employer” both recognizable and uncanny.
CQ: I really enjoyed your story, “Our Employer,” and found it quite fascinating in a number of ways. One thing that is immediately striking about the story is the narrating voice – an undefined “we,” six people who are never distinguished from one another, apparently speaking in unison. Most people are familiar with traditional first-person singular narrators and third-person narrators, and Junot Diaz is known for his second-person narration, but first-person plural narration is rather rare. The only other example I can think of is Joshua Ferris’s novel Then We Came to the End. What drew you to this mode of narration for this story? Are there any other authors you’re familiar with who have also used first-person plural? Is there something particular to the contemporary moment that makes first-person plural narration appealing?
KE: In part, it’s an economical thing. I didn’t want to use up paragraphs individuating the bodyguards—I wasn’t interested in the ways they might differ from or disagree with each other. I wanted to heap focus (six dudes’ worth) on the employer, to help him seem important. Also I found it funny, in a maybe cartoonish way: six big interchangeable men with maternal feelings converging on this one weirdly unguided kid. The fact that the six are settled into a common voice exaggerates their concern, sentimentalizes it, as if they carry the good intention, like many parents, of not showing disagreement—of presenting, in a phrase from my own parents (by way of Dr. Phil), “a united front.”
Then We Came to the End is the only example of first-person plural I’ve read. I liked how it nailed that particular workplace dynamic, where some we or another is always conspiring to comment on a she or he or they. A nimble way to navigate a group. But the neat thing is that every use of first-person plural is unique to the group dynamic it presents. Every we exists via specific, personal terms. A we is always developing or devolving. I’d like to do more of that with fiction—tracking the birth and death of wes. The we of a couple; of some lady janitors; of a goatherd and goats. (Please don’t, if listening to this aloud, hear wee.)
What makes “the we” especially relevant to our present culture, I think, is our abundance of methods—new, untested, many fated for obsolescence—of constructing we-dom. The other day I spoke to a Wisconsinite who met her Australian husband playing W.O.W. So—do they sit at dinner parties and narrate the story of their meeting? The in-game circumstances that brought their avatars together on-screen for the first time? They must. (And could their relationship also end more or less via W.O.W.? I don’t see why not.) Other modern wes are unprecedentedly brief and tiny—the we between you and a twitter follower, or between you and your IT-services instant-message center representative. My question: does it elevate or magnify those passing relationships in an interesting way, to use we instead of I? And how many of our narratable feelings are “shared” enough to justify use of we? What separates a genuine we from a schmaltzy, wishful one?
CQ: The titular “employer” in the story seems to live in a world of privilege so extreme that it’s like a fundamentally alternate universe to the one most of us inhabit. Certain things about the story, especially the way the “brudes” airbrush reality and language for their employer, reminded me of science fiction. Do you see this as a science fiction story in some way? Do you see any other genres at play here?
KE: My favorite kind of sci-fi—which is maybe still called “soft-sci-fi”—parodies elements of the everyday (like the mood-machine in the first chapter of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which presents anew to us, for our review, the freedom/burden of using drugs to alter our behavior).
“Our Employer” is, most outwardly, a parody of celebrity, of life inside a 24/7 lucrative machine that places no emphasis on the subject’s privacy or emotional health—basically scavenges the surface of their lives for marketable narrative. In this case, it falls to the bodyguards to stabilize the celebrity’s life—they being already in a position of care (over “the body”—“the merch”). They sense that if they don’t humanize this little dude’s emotions, no one will. The point being that in every life, but especially a celebrity’s life, someone has to keep things real. And probably this someone is getting paid, one way or another. Which ideally doesn’t diminish the reality of their care. Ideally.
The story might’ve read a bit more like science fiction fifty or a hundred years ago, before mega-luxury and -stardom really skyrocketed in American culture. But you’re right—compared to the average American life, much less the average global life, wealth and celebrity is a bizarro world. But the things that matter in “our” world matter there, too.
CQ: I was really intrigued by your story’s depiction of social media and the ways in which it can be used to manipulate perception.
KE: Yeah. It’s strange how we curate our own profiles—representing ourselves on a daily basis through images and text and favoriting of content. Fussy self-portraits. I think sometimes we, feeling a little fidgety or dissatisfied in life, examine those portraits to confirm things about ourselves.
CQ: Fantasy and reality collide in really clever ways in your story, particularly towards the end. By the end of the story, do you think the “employer” is genuinely living in the real world, or is he still in his fantasy version of it? Do you think he’ll ever make it to the real world? Does it matter one way or the other?
KE: I wanted, by the end, to highlight how our (or at least my) “real world” resembles his fantasy world more than we (I) might notice.
A lot of people like to say—or have said and, like me, are tired of saying—that they “might’ve been an actor” or “would someday like to act.” We think we have some idea of how to inhabit roles well enough to make a career out of it—to deserve an audience. And, big surprise, we do. Down all avenues of life, we track our ability to play roles we want to play. When I was first dating my wife and we were en route to visit her parents, I had all sorts of scenarios play in my head of being a sweet dude. I was rehearsing for scenes no one was directing.
When the “employer” is clerking at a hardware store, he’s no different than his coworkers—all are playing the role of a clerk. Trying or failing to be a good clerk. The difference being that the “employer” experiences it as an act. He’s actor first, clerk second. He is convincing an audience, however small of one. And he knows how to derive pleasure and meaning from this. Many of us (I, at least) don’t.
CQ: How do you think Justin Bieber (or Zac Efron, or any of the other such precociously famous stars) would react if he read this story?
KE: They’re used to being portrayed in ways they don’t control, ways that don’t ring true to their experience. Probably they would read my story as just another of those ways. But that’s what celebrity is: volunteering to have one’s image mishandled. Enduring wildly reductive depictions of self.
Still, we tend not to care how major celebrities feel. None of them quite resemble failures. Talented or not, they aren’t overlooked, and that’s hard to relate to.
CQ: Are there any less well-known authors out there you’ve been especially influenced or impressed by recently?
KE: I’m looking forward to Greg Jackson’s debut collection Prodigals (March 2016). He’s the first writer I’ve really gotten hooked on before much work is out. I keep searching his name every few weeks to see if new work is published. He’s overshadowed on Google, for now, by MMA trainer Greg Jackson.
Jackson’s piece in VQR, “Serve and Volley, Near Vichy” is consistently vivid and patiently structured and does a sweet riff on a scene from Antonioni. Jackson is interested in flawed scenarios, self-made embarrassments, slow-burning confusions, fresh language. His New Yorker story, “Wagner in the Desert,” was insanely good—lots of “modern” moments (friends with filmmaking schemes, a snarky park official, the friend zone, masturbation as relief from the friend zone, drug use as fun delay of adulthood). I try only to read writers who sink me into a jealous stupor, an intelligent-feeling unrest. Delillo’s White Noise does it, Miranda July’s The First Bad Man does it, Edward P. Jones’ Lost in the City does it, DFW’s “Good Old Neon” does it. I’ve got Greg Jackson’s Granta issue coming in the mail, and I’d better wrap up whatever I’m writing before it gets here.
The crow sat in the back yard like a stray piece of tire on the side of an expressway, except blacker and shinier. As my daughter and I watched, it shook itself out of a resting huddle, picking up a leg awkwardly, as if freeing a talon from a Plaster of Paris art project.
“It’s definitely hurt,” Claire said. “Maybe the wing is broken.” She tilted her head to the side and methodically pulled strands of her walnut blonde hair in front of her eyes, looking for split ends. “Who do we call?” Her tone contained a mix of no nonsense and impatience.
Claire always liked to push things, but today I was ornery enough to push back. We were all ornery after the fifth day of upper nineties weather and a broken air conditioner, our name on the long waiting list at Luke’s Heating and Cooling and five other mid-Michigan companies. We’d been spoiled by our air conditioning throughout the hot summer. My husband had already left to enjoy the cool comfort of his office, mumbling on his way out the door about the dangers of crawling after a crow in a mess of poison ivy. I didn’t want advice or wisdom. I was already wearing the sweat of his abandonment.
A late summer breeze came in through the back door, but with the air so heavy, what entered was a lift in pressure that settled back onto our shoulders after a fraction of a second, coating us with its weight, like the last bit of molasses clinging to a measuring spoon. Soon I would have to turn on fans, but I wanted to wait as long as possible, dreading the dust circulating around the house, the shouting we’d do to hear ourselves over the noise. Claire and I stood in the shadow of the kitchen, watching the crow’s shiny beak dip forward to its chest feathers. “Do you think it’s his wing?” she asked. “Or his leg? Maybe it was attacked by –”
I cut her off. “Dad’s probably right. We shouldn’t call anyone unless we’re sure it’s injured,” I said. “Best to just leave it be.” Her curiosity annoyed me. I didn’t have time for it. I didn’t need setbacks.
Claire took my comments as a challenge, so a few minutes later, while I stood silent in my nightgown at the sink window trying to convey a sense of finality on the subject, she tiptoed barefoot across the weather-whitened deck outside the back door. She moved in slow motion, avoiding the creaky spots. Her tanned legs advancing haltingly. The light filtered through the maple leaves and danced on the crown of her head. She wore a stretchy white camisole, her nipples pushed against the spandex material, imprints that darkened the white.
She was slender, like I once was, but much more willowy. I’d have to remind her to put on another layer of clothing before her boyfriend came over. It was her last day of being grounded; in a weak moment the night before, I’d agreed to let her boyfriend come over a day early, though insisting that she still couldn’t leave the house until the next day. Now I was sorry, mad at myself for being a sucker, mad at her for manipulating me.
Our back yard lot was fenced on three and a half sides, with one gate leading to the school sidewalk and soccer field and another gate leading to Martin’s yard. A wooded area in one corner of the lot – a small unkempt thatch – joined a portion of the overgrown space in the adjoining lot to form a miniature forest. The crow sat next to the border of the thatch.
“It’s okay,” Claire crooned softly. The crow fixed its eye on her, as if mesmerized by her voice. “I won’t hurt you.” She took another step toward the crow. It fluttered up a foot into the air, settling down a bit further, not far from the metallic blue gazing ball and the elephant grass. She turned to me and used the same low voice she offered to the bird, only less sing-song like. “It IS his wing,” she said emphatically. “We have to call someone.”
By the time I got out of the shower, the boys were sitting at the kitchen table with their Lucky Charms, chairs positioned to see directly out the double window in which the crow was neatly framed. But apparently they didn’t even notice. Claire smirked at me to acknowledge their woeful ignorance. “Can’t you call now? It’s after nine.”
“Call where?” Pete’s mouth was full of half-chewed, pastel marshmallow bits.
“That’s disgusting,” Claire said. “Close your mouth when you chew.”
“Call where?” Quentin repeated. He banged his blue cast against the table. Claire winced.
“Do you have to be so obnoxious?” Pete said.
“Knock it off,” I said.
“You always take his side,” Pete mumbled.
“Call where?” Quentin parroted again.
“Claire wants me to call someone about the injured crow in the back yard.” I blocked the kitchen door that led to the back yard, my body a barrier. Their chairs scraped against the floor. “No,” I said, and it came out enough of a shout that they stopped. “If you go out there, you’ll make it nervous. And you,” I said to Quentin, “can’t touch it. Birds have germs. You have allergies.” He made a sucking noise, moving mucus through his nasal passages.
“He won’t have any friends in first grade if he makes that disgusting noise!” Claire said.
“If Claire got to see it close up, we should get to see it, too,” Pete said. He stood up from the table abruptly, his thighs long and white where they jutted out of his Hanes briefs, then becoming brown at the knees and all the way to his ankles where the skin underneath his sock line faded to white again. His tennis pro tan. I kept forgetting to buy him some boxer shorts so he could be cool like the other guys, hide his tan line.
“Life’s not fair,” I said. He rolled his eyes. “Deal with it.”
Crow-saving was not on my agenda. I had seven loads of laundry spread over the living room couch, floor, and chairs, and a half-dozen newly laminated posters on drawing techniques for my art classes that I had to trim. I was frustrated that I couldn’t shoo the kids into the back yard. I’d just showered, yet I felt sweat gathering under the buttons of my sleeveless shirt.
Claire stayed planted in her chair at the table, swirling her spoon through the container of Key Lime yogurt in front of her. She glanced up, her lips taking on a firmness, even as I spoke. “Look,” I said. “It might be best just to leave the bird alone, see if it regains its strength and flies off.” I wanted to reason with her in an open and mature way. In the last few weeks, we’d reached a truce, our stated goal to walk a mile in each other’s flip-flops. I wanted to honor that.
“Mom,” she said, and her voice was all affected maturity. Maybe with a bit of reason. “It’s hurt, and it needs our help.” She wanted to treat it as a moral issue, as if leaving the crow to fend for itself would be inhumane. If I failed to act, she implied, the crow might die, yes, or something else, something unforeseen, could happen; the three-year old from next door might wander into the yard, and the dying crow might bite her.
In the den, the boys addressed their boredom by turning on the television and jeering at Mr. Rogers, his shoes, and his sweater. Claire lifted her head at the sound of the trolley in the other room, smiling triumphantly as she looked at me. “What would Mr. Rogers do?” she said.
In the back yard, the calling and cawing had become eerily steady, but it was hard to know if the racket was unusual. For most of the summer we’d kept our doors and windows closed up to segregate ourselves from the heat; we’d never paid attention to how much the birds squawked at one another. Up in the trees, four of them perched like sentries on the perimeter: two in the oak, two in different maples. They were quiet, dark shapes amid the swish of green and grayish branches until they started up again, vocalizing in rhythmic caws, voices distressed.
Claire sat next to me at the table, holding the sheets she’d printed off from the Internet. She’d done the research. We were looking for a crow rehabilitator. She had some phone numbers. Crows mated for life, so one of the birds in the tree was probably a partner, expressing concern.
The woman who answered said we should try to get it over to the Wild Side, just one county away. “Those people will take it off your hands for sure if you can get it out there.”
“My daughter thinks something’s wrong with the wing, but I can’t tell,” I admitted. “We don’t want to get too close because it’s right next to this small thatch of a wooded area on our lot, and if it goes in there, we’ll never get it out. There’s too much poison ivy to risk it. Plus, there are the other crows.” I thought of Quentin in sandals, big toe ripe for the pecking. “The ones watching. We think they’re getting mad.”
She chuckled. “They do have a special caw for that – an assembly or a distress call, but I haven’t perfected my bird sounds yet. I’m supposed to get off at four, and I could come over then, but we’re short-handed today. I’ve got to be somewhere at six. So I might be able to swing over there today, but I can’t make any promises. I’d probably just take it to Wild Side myself. But really, I’m betting you could do this yourself.”
“It’s not that I’m unwilling to try the crow-catching thing; it’s just that I wouldn’t want to hurt it. Or have it hurt me.” I lowered my voice so maybe Claire wouldn’t hear me. “What would happen if we just left it there? Couldn’t it get better and maybe fly off?”
“Definitely,” she said. I felt a surge of enthusiasm. “We have this standard we use – the ‘two hours, two days, two weeks’ rule. It might get better and fly off in two hours. Or two days. The tough cases can take up to two weeks, but crows can definitely mend on their own.” She paused. “Unless a dog or a fox gets it. And it might not be an injury. It could be West Nile. Does the bird appear to be okay neurologically, or does it stagger around?”
“He doesn’t move too much at all, but when he does, he kind of limps.”
“Is he all puffed out or more sleek-like?”
“Sleek-like,” I said.
“Sounds like an injury,” she said. Then she sighed. “Maybe you could get a laundry basket and put it over the crow until I get there. A basket keeps the bird from moving too much or attracting the attention of a larger animal. And then you can transport it in the basket or a box, depending on how active it is. Just make sure it can breathe.”
As I listened to her, Pete and Quentin entered the room. They each held something in their right hands, and at the same moment, they flicked their wrists and extended Star Wars Light Sabers, one green, one red. Quentin gestured to the back yard, making a slicing gesture with the saber in the air above him.
I voiced my final worry. “If it’s West Nile, are we at risk?”
“No. Crows are dead-end hosts. People get West Nile from mosquitoes, not from crows.”
Claire was in the shower, getting ready for Brandon, and I was on the living room couch. Martin had called after the crow rehabilitator hung up, telling me I should send Claire over for some of his tomatoes. “They’re falling off the vine,” he said. Or he could bring some over, if I wanted them, after Hannah’s nap. I told him we were dealing with a dying crow. And then, I couldn’t help it, I did the thing I’d done ever since I met him and his wife Lacey: I closed my eyes and pretended to be blind to hear if his voice sounded any different when I couldn’t see. It was such a good-natured, self-sufficient voice, and hearing it made me realize I’d imagined all blind people to be morose, tortured. Maybe even incapable.
He wished me luck, and I yelled my goodbye back over the fan and grabbed another item of clothing to fold. Soon the school year would begin, and I would leave the bickering of my own three children to listen to the woes of nearly a hundred teenagers in my art classes, who talked to their seatmates about issues that fractured their worlds – friendship rifts, distant parents, unprotected sex – while their pencils moved on the paper, shading, finding perspective. I tried to pretend I didn’t hear, but when their voices lost the moral authority and certainty that I heard so often in Claire’s voice, becoming almost innocent, and when I knew that they might take whatever advice they heard from the person drawing next to them, whoever that might be, I had to decide whether to say something or choke down my words to honor their privacy.
Sometimes I found it so difficult to know when to help people and when to leave them alone. After Martin and his family had moved in, it took us a couple of months to get the hang of things. We had to remind ourselves that they’d lived without us all these years, and if we moved, they’d do without us again. Martin told me that wanting to help is a common response, that it’s better than the other one, which is avoidance. The first time they came into our yard, when we asked them over for dessert, we had to adjust to the physical thing. Touching their arms to point them in the direction of the swing set. Describing distances in feet and yards, instead of by landmarks. Hannah was sighted, but at three, her ability to comprehend danger was limited. We felt we had to watch out for her.
Claire came into the room wearing wet hair and the scent of tea-tree shampoo. The flimsy camisole was gone, replaced by a normal t-shirt. One less fight to have. “He’ll be here in fifteen,” she said. “Any update on the crow situation?”
Quentin zipped into the room, put a foot on a sheet of lamination and tried to surf the carpet. He landed at Claire’s feet.
“When Brandon gets here, don’t bug us,” Claire said. “We don’t want to play with you.”
“Let’s not be mean,” I said.
Pete was at the doorway, his face in a pout. “Why does HE have to come over?”
“Because mom won’t let us go out. You’re stuck with us.”
“Can’t you just let them go, Mom? We don’t want to see them hold hands or kiss, and they’re always mean to us.”
The stack of my husband’s underwear made a nice, uniform pile. I remained silent.
Pete snorted when I refused to take his bait. He followed Claire into the kitchen.
When they returned a few minutes later, they were buddies, sitting on either side of me on the couch, antagonistic shadows pushing the wrinkled clothes further into crevices. “We want to give the crow some bread,” Claire said. “Just a few crumbs.”
“But we don’t want Quentin to come,” Pete said.
“That’s not fair.” Quentin emerged from the pile of whites where he’d buried himself.
“Please get your stinky cast away from my clean underwear,” Pete said.
“Why don’t you take it upstairs?” Quentin plucked a pair of briefs out of the pile and threw it at Pete, who tackled him.
“Enough.” I yelled. But they all laughed and Quentin twisted his face into a replica of mine. “All of you, get your shoes on, and you can go out. But the two of you,” I pointed to the boys, “stay three feet away. Follow your sister.”
“What if the other ones attack?” Pete said.
“That’s why you move slowly and don’t get too close.”
One by one, we stepped onto the back deck. A lawnmower droned in the distance, but there were no bird sounds, not even chatter. “Maybe they’re on their lunch break,” Pete said.
They each held a couple of slices of bread, Claire leading the way, pulling on the crust of her bread piece and palming it. They moved slowly, every step a freeze-frame.
The crow watched, its eye fixed. Claire took another step, and the black body fluttered up, its talons jabbing at the air until it fell, closer now to the edge of the wooded area.
“You’re going to have to back off, guys.” I called from the deck. “We can’t let it go into the woods. Dad says there’s too much poison ivy in there and if it goes in, we’ll never get it out. We can’t risk Quentin’s getting it – he’ll scratch himself to death.” I wondered if they were listening. “It’ll die in there,” I added for good measure.
“One more step,” Claire said, and in sync, the three of them each raised a foot just as a loud rustling sounded overhead. Two crows in the maple began kibitzing, their caws scratchy, rapid. Quentin threw his remaining bread in the air and ran back to the deck, shooting past me and into the house. At the flurry of his movement, one of the birds overhead darted down to the ground, claiming the territory between Claire and Pete and their path back to the house. Claire was unfazed and whispered, “The wife?” but Pete looked worried. Before I could say anything, Claire said, “On the count of three, circle around the crow and go back to the house.” Quentin watched from safety behind the kitchen window, but I heard him counting with Claire and Pete in a loud whisper, and when they got to three, Pete and Claire ran around the bird to the house where I was standing, holding the back door open.
Inside, Claire doubled over and did her half-real, half-fake laugh. Pete glared at her. “It’s not funny. We could have been attacked.”
Claire shook her head. “Lighten up. It’s like that dumb Hitchcock movie about birds.”
“That’s not dumb. It’s a classic,” I said.
“They could have dive-bombed us!” Pete said. “Made us victims of their aerial assault!”
“This isn’t Top Gun. They’re just birds!” Claire said in disgust.
I looked at the two of them, enemies again. “Just stay inside from now on.”
The doorbell rang. Pete stomped up the stairs, yelling back down, “Why does HE always have to ruin everything?” He slammed his door, and then it opened again, as he yelled down the stairs, “I hate your frickin’ boyfriend.”
“Don’t say ‘frickin’,’” I yelled up the stairs. He slammed the door again.
Quentin threw open the front door, Claire pulled the rubber band out of her hair, and the scent of shampoo filled the room.
In the living room, the fan shook on its stand, wind-tunnel loud. The edges of the posters on the floor lifted in the air stream as the fan oscillated from side to side, sending out fabricated breezes. On the other end of the house, Claire, Brandon and Quentin had their own fan; they’d pulled the blinds in the family room to watch a movie in the dark. Pete still sulked in his room. I would finish the socks before I tried to do anything else with the crow.
When Claire came in a few minutes later, I told her the plan: we would sit tight until the crow lady got off work. I would try to cover the crow with a laundry basket in the meantime to keep him cool and in the same spot. I didn’t mention predators. They all watched the movie, my daughter drooling over Orlando Bloom, while her boyfriend poked her in the ribs to punish her. I made turkey sandwiches and mixed Kool-Aid. How lovely it would be to load everyone in the car and drive to the lake, but we couldn’t leave the crow. The crow lady would be calling back in a few hours. No air came in through the back door. Sweat collected between my breasts.
Pete had come downstairs and now sat across the room from Claire and Brandon, who were on the couch. Quentin lay sprawled on the floor. Pete kept his eyes on Claire and her boyfriend. We watched, too, my husband and I, when they were together. There were rules they had to follow. They used to go into the basement, until we objected, and now they stayed upstairs, always vertical. My friend taught me to use that rule after she learned it the hard way with her own daughter: vertical, never horizontal.
Brandon was seventeen, with red, curly hair, and he always wore t-shirts with cut-off sleeves. I imagined him buying the t-shirts new, then taking the scissors to the armpits. Sometimes when he saw me, he lowered his eyes, and I wanted to say to him, “What are you ashamed of?” but Claire told us once how much he respected us. Sure, we said, knowing it could be a line. Sure. We had to teach them about propriety. What was appropriate for teenagers in a house with parents and younger brothers, especially when the girl had only just turned fifteen. How awkward it was to come upon squirming bodies, even if those bodies were wearing clothes.
Pete raised the glass of Kool-Aid to his lips, his eyes remaining dark as he looked in my direction. He had been a spy for me before, and he knew some of my shame. He brought his plate and glass into the kitchen. “I’m going to poke the holes in the top of a box,” he said. A few minutes later, he was in the living room, and I imagined the scissors I’d left there for poster trimming now in his hand, rising and falling as he plunged the scissors into the cardboard. The sound made me wince, but I couldn’t keep myself from counting. I wanted him to stop.
Right after lunch, Claire started pushing again. “Do the laundry basket thing,” she said.
“When I’m ready,” I told her.
Ten minutes later, when they weren’t paying attention, I picked out the most rickety laundry basket and went out the back door. On the lawn, I stood silent for a moment, watching the crow, the black down on its head sleek, as if combed, its eyes a dark grayish-blue. The relatives in the branches above squawked, and the crow opened its mouth as if to respond, but nothing came out. I wanted the ability to translate what they were saying to him. To understand if they were offering encouragement or using him as an example, warning other crows about his plight. I wanted to know what he planned to say back. But when I heard the back door squeak and the clunk of feet on the deck, the crow and I broke our shared eye contact. In an instant, Claire and Brandon were beside me, their steps even with mine. “What do you want us to do?”
“Just stay back,” I whispered. The crow already hugged the edge of the woods. A twig cracked under my foot, and the crow puffed out its wings and made a quarter turn. Above me, a startled caw came down from the trees. Claire inhaled. We were just two feet away, and I wondered if I could just try to throw the basket over the bird, knowing it would be too ironic to wipe the thing out with a blow to the head from the receptacle meant to save it.
Abruptly, Brandon stepped forward. His hand grabbed the rim of the basket. “Let me do it,” he said. A fist of anger rose from my stomach into my chest.
I jerked the basket away from him. “No!” The word came out sharp and bitten, surprising them. Claire bent her head, avoiding my glance. She reached out, pulling at Brandon’s arm, and they backed up, giving me room.
Beyond the woods, laughter rose from the school soccer field, and the noise and my embarrassment made me step with more force than I intended. The black clump rose up and shrieked, flapping its wings rapidly, propelling itself into the wooded area, poison ivy territory.
“Shit,” I said. I turned to Claire and Brandon, who stood apart but were connected by their arms, their woven fingers. “Shit,” I said again, for emphasis, and I stomped toward the back door, tossing the laundry basket to the side, nearly knocking over the grill.
Quentin stood inside the door. He looked at me and raised his eyebrows. “You swore.”
On the day that my daughter said Fuck You to my husband and me, I taught her to do laundry. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time. We’d grounded her, so she said her Fuck You, and then she and I stormed to our rooms. My husband acted as an ambassador of good will, traveling between us, absorbing our spite and venom. When we’d both ventured out of our boxes of emotion, moving through the house cautiously, always aware of where the other was, I finally made myself approach her, told her to gather her clothes from the floor of her room and get ready. Separate darks from lights. Make a third pile of “delicates.” Wash whites on hot. Wash darks on cold. Wash delicates on warm. Inspect all tags before drying, especially on the shirts that are already too small, exposing your midriff.
On the night of the Fuck You, she’d come back from babysitting for Hannah. It wasn’t late. Martin and Lacey had just gone to the house of some friends in the neighborhood, carrying their potato salad and their canes as they went down the sidewalk. They’d arranged for someone to drop them off later. But Claire and Brandon had gotten in a fight before Claire had gone over there. She was crying when she came in the door that night and told us that he’d shown up, after Hannah was in bed, and parked his car down the street. And he’d stayed there, arguing with her at first and then lying with her on the couch, both of them losing track of time until they heard the car in the driveway. We didn’t know what to do, Claire said. You told me never to bring boys babysitting. We didn’t do anything wrong, but he hid in a corner anyway. They pretended they didn’t know he was there, but they did. They gave me the money and said goodbye. They opened the back door and turned on the light. And they left the door open and went into another room.
So they could pretend not to hear him. What do you say to a blind man and his wife in a situation like that? After Claire went to bed, we talked it over and decided to say nothing. It was the coward’s way. I wasn’t proud of it. But I couldn’t think of what I owed them. To Claire, we said Grounded. And then Claire said Fuck You and learned how to do the laundry. Martin and Lacey never said anything, and although they’d brought Hannah into the back yard in recent weeks, they hadn’t called Claire to baby-sit.
The blue laundry basket lay upside down on the deck, the sun making a pattern of squares on the wood planks as it shone through the openings in the side. When the phone finally rang, it wasn’t the crow lady. “Listen,” Martin said. “I’ve been out in my garden, and it’s awfully noisy. What were you saying about crows earlier?”
He met me at the gate, and Hannah trailed after him, carrying a bowl of large tomatoes, the kind of deep red you wanted to bite into right away. I hated it that he was being so nice to us. He wore a green, short-sleeved shirt with palm trees on it. I explained the plan and the setbacks and how we hoped that the crow lady would be able to make it out but we didn’t know.
The bird was where we left it, alive, and resting a foot or so into the wooded area. My crew waited on the back deck, promising not to move. As I ushered Martin and Hannah into the back yard, I told him the about the poison ivy in the woods and the crows overhead. I described to him where the crow sat in relation to the swing set that he knew so well. He raised his head, eyes closed, and listened for such a long time that I was almost uncomfortable. When he opened his eyes, he said he would go into the woods and force the crow into the open area.
“But the branches,” I said. “And what about the poison ivy?”
“I’m immune,” he said. “At least that’s what my mother always says.”
“What if other crows try to stop you?” Quentin waved his cast toward the trees.
“I don’t know. We’ll see.” Martin squinted and stuck his tongue out at Hannah.
“He always says that,” Hannah said. Then he was off, walking carefully toward the wooded area, his cane in front of him. As he stepped quietly into the woods, he raised the cane and slashed it to the right. A crack, followed by the swish of branches, startled the crow. It began to move its wings again, trying to flutter away.
On the deck, the kids were silent. I concentrated on the trees overhead; there were six or more crows now, all watching, but they, too, were silent. Martin took another step, whacking another branch. The crow hopped out of the woods and stumbled, half-flying onto the grassy part of the yard. Overhead, the crows rasped furiously, ke-ke, ke-ke.
Martin came out of the tangled undergrowth, too, crashing behind the bird, his face a bright red with a sheen of moisture. Then he pitched forward, tripping on something buried under the brush. The hand without the cane went up in the air like he was waving, and the top of his body bent from the waist. What would it be like, I wondered, to fall without seeing the ground come up at you, seeing nothing but the dark, blurry fog that you lived with every day?
I stood rooted to the spot where I held Hannah’s hand.
But then his body righted itself and Claire went running toward him, into the woods, her flip flops trampling whatever ivy wound its way around the trees. She touched his free arm, the one without the cane, and he wrapped his fingers just above her wrist, holding her motionless, listening. He called quietly, “Get the sheet and the box.” He released her arm then, and as he walked toward where the crow had cornered itself, he made a small crooning sound.
“Come on,” he said to me, hearing me move toward him from across the yard. “Just drop the sheet right over it.” He lowered himself to his knees.
I did what he said, and then he was just a neighbor again, moving on his haunches to feel at the cotton, trying to locate the crow underneath. I knelt, too, and began scooping at the material myself, until together, we both found the bird’s body and secured it in the cloth.
He handed the bundle to me. I held the crow to my chest. Its head poked out of the sheet. The kids relinquished their silence and Claire laughed her fluttery, run-up-the-scales laugh. “You got him!” Hannah said.
The crow’s sleek face and beak rested against my shirt. Quentin wanted to touch, but Martin and I shook our heads. Pete stepped forward with the box so I could place the bird inside.
“And you’re taking it where, again?” Martin asked.
“Some place called Wild Side,” I said. He nodded his head. His face was less red in color. “Thanks,” I said. “We really appreciate it.”
“Remember that I have a vested interest,” he said. He turned his head from side to side, as if surveying the area. “Your yard is safe,” he said. Overhead, the crows made noise, but it wasn’t loud or threatening anymore. “Maybe I’ll bring Hannah over to swing later on, but right now, we need lemonade, right, Hannah Banana?” He smiled as he reached for Hannah’s hand and took a step toward his yard. He stopped and turned back, looking uncertain. Finally, he reaching his arm out in the direction of my kids, and I realized that his hand was extended to Brandon. “Martin,” he said. “Nice to meet you.”
“Yes, sir.” Brandon said.
In front of the refrigerator, the boys poured Kool-Aid into plastic Tupperware cups. Claire put a hand on my shoulder. “Mom, we’re burning up. Can’t Brandon and I take the boys for ice cream? They can be our chaperones in the back seat. Just down to Quality Dairy.”
“I’m taking them with the crow to Wild Side.” I said. The boys created a clatter of ice as they twisted a tray over the ice bin. “But maybe we can meet you there afterward, you and Brandon.” Her face was flushed, like Martin’s, but she stood up straighter and smiled.
In less than an hour, my husband’s car would pull into the driveway from the road. We’d all be gone by then, the boys and I in an air-conditioned car to drop off the crow, Brandon and Claire in Brandon’s beat up Grand Am to take a spin before the four of us met for ice cream, double scoops, dessert before dinner. I imagined that once in the car, we would take the top off of the box, and the crow would poke its head out during the ride, watching the green leaves and the other black crows go by in the windows.
Claire smiled at me so brightly that it was almost hard for me to repeat the conditions. “Only an hour and a half,” I said. “We’ll meet you at Quality Dairy at the corner of Larch and Lake Lansing. If you get there first, go ahead and buy.” I handed her a folded ten so that she could buy her own ice cream, maybe even his.
In the passenger seat of Brandon’s truck, Claire grabbed the seat belt with her right hand and held it up in the air, the silver buckle catching the light as she nodded at it and then me before fastening the belt. Through the open window, she called out, “See, I’m wearing it.”
As Brandon pulled into traffic, a siren sounded in the distance. If I imagined the worst, I could hear wrenching metal and breaking glass. But if I listened for the balance between imagination and truth, all I heard was the buffered mewl of the siren and the swish of five o’clock traffic. The boys stood on the front lawn, chins lifted in anticipation of a breeze, before they ducked into the van. Above me, the crows had taken their places in different branches. We didn’t need to hurry. They would wait.
Dawn Newton received an M.A. in Writing from the Johns Hopkins University. Her short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in the Baltimore Review, Gargoyle, the South Carolina Review, So to Speak: a feminist journal of language and art, and other literary magazines. She is presently completing a memoir, Stage IV: Mother on Tarceva, and lives in East Lansing, Michigan, with her husband, three children, and gal pal Clover.
Sadie knew that most girls her age would be happy to spend an entire week at the seaside, but most girls did not have Sadie’s mother. Most girls also did not have Sadie’s mother’s boyfriend, who drove with the steering wheel in one hand and a cold beer in the other. Every few minutes, he’d place the beer between his legs, then run his free hand through his hair to rid it of the excess moisture, a gesture that Sadie found disgusting. Sadie and her mother and her mother’s boyfriend had a single-room reservation at the South Wind, a motel smack dab between a fishing pier and a military base. “It’s got a pool,” her mother crowed from the front seat. Mickey was silent until after his second beer, when he started asking Sadie about boys. “Girl like you shouldn’t have any trouble finding a boyfriend at the beach,” he said. Sadie’s mother slapped his arm playfully, as if he’d just complimented her and not Sadie. Outside, the ground grew flatter with every mile, white fields of cotton blurring past. Cassie and Rachel were leaving that very day for Racing Wind Roller Coaster Park. They would wear those shorts with the rhinestones on the back pockets. They would have no trouble finding boyfriends. Once, when the three of them had met two boys at the mall, they’d asked Sadie to wait for them in the food court. Two orders of French fries and a Haagen-Dazs later, they still hadn’t returned. Sadie had taken the bus home. Still, she wished she was going with them to Racing Wind Roller Coaster Park instead of to the beach with her mother and Mickey. Sadie laid down in the back seat and closed her eyes. The highway thrummed beneath her.
The pool, it turned out, was a rectangle of tepid water set in a square of shadeless concrete. Sadie spent most of the first three afternoons there, huddled in the shadow of a maintenance shed. As the day wore on, the shadow grew longer, allowing her to inch closer and closer to the pool’s edge. On Thursday, she had just dipped her toes into the shallow end when a station wagon arrived in the parking lot, and out clambered two overweight women and two impressively large children. From the back, the boy looked like a grown man. Later, in the pool, Sadie studied his face over the top of her book, trying to guess his age. Eleven, she thought. Maybe twelve.
The boy’s face was lobster-red. He bobbed in the pool with his t-shirt billowing up around him. He was two-hundred pounds, easy, and not even in the sixth grade yet, according to his sister who was bobbing next to him. They were two capsized blimps, orbiting around each other in the aquamarine water. “Stop it!” the girl twin was screaming, “Stop it or that’s three strikes and you’re going back to juvy!” Sadie squinted her eyes at the glare coming off the pool and tried not to stare.
“Ain’t goin’ to juvy,” the boy was grunting, his arm locked around the girl’s neck. Sadie glanced at the gray-haired woman who had been driving the station wagon, but she had opened the gate on the chain link fence surrounding the pool and was walking through the parking lot and past the dumpsters, towards the ocean, which Sadie could hear, but not see. “Are too” – the girl started to say, but the boy dragged her under the water. Sadie wondered if she should intervene, but then she noticed that the other woman, a younger, brunette version of the gray-haired one, was sitting in a crooked lawn chair in the corner of the patio, watching the twins. The woman’s left leg was splayed out at an awkward angle and her face was frozen in a palsied grimace. Her left hand shook against the chair, and Sadie got the sense that she was trying to lift her arm, as if to point. “What’re we doin’ for supper?” the boy called out once he’d let go of his sister. The woman surprised Sadie by answering in a gruff voice, without changing her expression. “Hardee’s.”
Sadie watched them climb out of the pool and pile back into the station wagon, still wet. Then she unwrapped the oversized beach towel she’d been wearing and jumped in the pool, staying under as long as she could before coming to the surface and floating on her back. She exhaled at the blue sky above her, breathing out syllables until the right name came to her. “Candy,” she breathed. “My name’s Candy.” She fluttered her eyelids, stroked her hips which at this moment felt weightless, which in her mind were narrow and taut, the flesh pulled over the bones just so. “Thank you,” she breathed out loud, an imaginary compliment from the imaginary boy who was touching her there, saying something about the color of her eyes. “Mine’s purple,” she said, when he said his favorite color was blue. Her heart fluttered in her chest and she stared down at her toes, which she had painted pink. She was about to say something else, something to flatter him, when she saw a shadow and shot up from her backfloat, her feet kicking to gain purchase on the pool floor.
The shadow belonged to the motel owner’s son, the exact kind of boy Sadie had been fabricating (she was careful never to imagine a specific boy, just a type). He was tan and looked strong, his t-shirt hanging pleasingly off of his square shoulders. He wore a ball cap over his blonde hair, which curled out around the edges. He was fiddling with a vial he’d pulled from the pool’s filter. “Should I get out?” Sadie asked. Her voice sounded nasally, waterlogged. “Nah,” he said. His voice was neutral. She could even imagine it was kind, interested. Except that when he glanced at her from underneath the brim of his hat, his eyes were mean. Sadie looked away. She waded towards the deep end and held onto the ladder, listening to him behind her, hoping he’d ask how she was or what was her name. “Can’t understand why people want to swim in a pool when they’ve got an entire ocean right there,” is what he said. Sadie’s face burned.
It was this kind of obvious thing about herself that she was always missing. Of course it was stupid to swim in a tiny motel pool when you had the entire ocean at your disposal. She wondered what else she was being dumb about as she gathered her swim towel and sun lotion and shuffled back across the parking lot in a too-small pair of flip-flops, her heels burning on the blacktop. It was probably something like this that had made Cassie stop speaking to her. Rachel had said it was because Sadie was ugly, which Sadie knew wasn’t true, because she’d won three beauty pageants by the age of six. But she was fat. Not as fat as those twins at the pool, but fat enough to never be called skinny. And Sadie knew that that was worse than being ugly.
Still, she and Cassie had been friends since elementary school and surely Cassie wouldn’t give up on her altogether just because of Rachel and a couple of boys they’d met at the mall. As she rummaged through the mini-kitchen for something to eat, Sadie reasoned that maybe she’d forgotten Cassie’s birthday. Or maybe it was that thing she’d said about Cassie’s brother turning out no so bad after all. Maybe that wasn’t something you said about a thirteen-year-old. She remembered the disgust on Rachel’s face when she’d said it, and flushed. She found a half-eaten bag of Cheetos and took it out to the balcony, where Mickey was smoking a cigarette. Above them, seagulls wheeled about in a swirl that seemed deliberate. She watched them, but could not discern a pattern. “Look,” Mickey said, pointing out towards the ocean. A pelican folded itself into an arrow and dove into the sea, emerging with a sizeable fish. “Damn,” he said. It was impressive, Sadie had to admit, that kind of focus. Tomorrow, she determined, she too would swim in the ocean. Mickey pulled a joint from his pocket and lit it, wiggling his eyebrows at her as he did. He pulled in one long drag, the end of the joint crackling red, and then held it out to her. “Toke?” he said.
Her mother, who’d been sleeping in a mound of dark covers on one of the beds, emerged from the room. “Jesus, Mickey,” she said, and took the joint from his hand. “She ain’t old enough for that shit.” Sadie’s mother took a drag and Sadie watched the way her mother’s eyes closed as she drew the smoke into her lungs. Sadie separated her hair into three wet ropes, which she began braiding down her back, squeezing the moisture from her hair as she went. As the braid got longer, her mother leaned in to help, and Sadie could feel her wheezing breath in her ear. When the braid was almost finished, they all turned at the sound of a car pulling into the parking lot. It was the station wagon, the twins in the back holding matching burgers to their faces, their eyes passing blandly over the lower-level motel rooms as the car slid past. When they climbed from the car, Sadie saw that the girl, like her brother, was badly sunburned, long threads of skin peeling away from her shoulders. “Now there’s some kids your age,” Sadie’s mother said, drying her hands off on the towel Sadie had hung over the railing.
“They’re only in the sixth grade,” Sadie said, feeling for the end of the braid, which her mother hadn’t secured with a rubber band.
Her mother shrugged. “They look nice enough to me.”
Sadie could already feel the braid unraveling at the nape of her neck.
The next afternoon, at the pool, the twins addressed Sadie. “You hear bout the shark attacks?” they wanted to know. Sadie shook her head. She hadn’t. The twins didn’t know if anyone had died. “Somebody lost a arm, though,” the boy said. “Just down the other side of the pier.” The twins were going to go out on the pier that evening, to look for the arm, floating out there in the water. It was a ridiculous proposition, but Sadie had nothing better to do. “Okay,” she said, when they asked her. “I’m room 213. Just knock when you’re on the way.”
Instead, though, Sadie was waiting on the balcony, holding a pack of cigarettes she’d stolen from Mickey’s knapsack. She saw the twins walking across the parking lot and waved when they looked up at her. She tucked the cigarettes into her bra along with a pack of matches. “The South Wind,” they read in cursive, like matches from a fancy restaurant.
The sun was setting, but the parking lot still radiated heat. The twins still wore their swimsuits, the boy with a t-shirt over his, the girl with an oversized dress that looked like it must belong to the gray-haired woman or the palsied one. She followed them through the parking lot, then through the bait shop, where silver schools of minnows swam in giant coolers, the milky water barely stirred by their graceful movement. Out on the dock, the halogen lights made the sky seem gray and far away, the stars dim, but the ocean was alive, waves layered upon waves, white foam curling at their tips. It didn’t seem so crazy now that they might see the swimmer’s arm floating out there. Sadie wouldn’t have been surprised, either, to see shark fins slice through the gray water.
Between the weathered planks of the pier, Sadie could see the ocean churning. She smoothed her hair back and thought of TJ, the blonde curls escaping from beneath his ball cap. The cigarettes tucked in her bra made her feel womanly. She pulled them out, smiling slyly at the twins. “You two ever smoke a cigarette?” she asked.
The twins looked at each other. “Yeah,” the boy said. “Lots of times.”
“Stupid,” the girl twin said. “He ain’t never smoked one. Me neither.”
“Yeah,” the boy said, changing tack. “Cigarettes are nasty.”
Sadie shrugged and smiled. “Suit yourself,” she said. She pulled one from the pack and placed it between her lips, handing the pack of matches to the boy. “You at least know how to light one?”
She curled her body over the cigarette, away from the wind, and he struck the match, cupping it expertly inside his free hand to protect the flame. “Sure I do,” he said. Sadie turned away to take her first drag, pulling the smoke into her mouth but not her lungs. She turned around to exhale, blowing the smoke towards the girl twin.
“Gimme one,” the boy said. Sadie pulled one from the pack and handed it to him.
“Juvy,” the girl twin said. “Third strike.”
They stood like that at the edge of the pier for a while, looking out at the wide ocean, the boy twin and Sadie leaning over the edge to ash their cigarettes, then throwing the still-lit butts down into the water.
“What’s the matter with your mom?” Sadie asked.
“She’s not our mom,” the girl said. “What, you mean her leg?”
“I guess,” Sadie said. “And her face, how it’s, you know.”
“She had a stroke,” the boy offered. “It’s our aunt.”
Sadie didn’t ask what had happened to their mother. In a way, she thought she already knew. She wondered if it’d been gradual, a little bit at a time, or if it’d been all at once – a car in the driveway that left one morning and never came back. Sadie didn’t know which was worse.
“Look,” the boy said, pointing. Sadie looked, expecting a shark, but saw instead hundreds of purple discs undulating in the water, a fluid constellation. “Jellyfish.”
If Sadie looked too closely at any single one, it would shift from her line of sight, slide into the valley of a wave. It was better to make her eyes soft and see them all at once, filling the water, purple blooming up everywhere she looked.
“They can’t really swim you know,” the boy said.
The girl rolled her eyes. “That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard,” she said. “They’re fish.”
“It’s true,” the boy said, strangely un-argumentative. “They can move up and down in the water, by sucking water in and then pushing it out.” He cupped his hand upside down in a bell shape, then flattened his fingers like they were spitting something out, to demonstrate. “But they can’t choose what direction they go in. They gotta go where the tide takes them. That’s how come you see them this way, in groups so close to shore.” The boy looked at her. ”Sometimes they’ll wash up, hundred at a time. Then they’ll die on the beach, all together. Stinks like hell.”
They stood like this at the edge of the pier, the boy talking on about blooms of jellyfish and the feeding habits of sharks, until the girl made a snorting sound, loud, and pointed in the opposite direction from where the boy and Sadie had been looking, towards the motel. “Beached whale!” she said. Sadie felt her heart leap a little, because suddenly something about the night seemed so magical, with the jellyfish and the cigarette smoke under the hazy lights of the pier. It was beautiful somehow without boys, without Rachel or Cassie, beautiful in a way that felt new.
But Sadie scanned the beach, and there was no whale. The girl twin’s snort made its way to laughter, and the boy was laughing too, and the beached whale, Sadie understood now, was her mother. Her mother in a too-small bathing suit, pounds of loose flesh escaping from its elastic, and behind her, standing in the surf, Mickey, his stomach like a pregnant belly, clutching a beer koozie in each hand and watching her mother roll backwards with each wave, unable to stand. He was laughing, too, Sadie saw. The twins and her mother and Mickey, all of them laughing.
Sadie kept watching for a moment along with the twins, then took the cigarettes and matches from her bra and handed them to the boy twin, who accepted them reverently.
“I forgot something back in the room,” Sadie said.
By the time Sadie had walked back down the pier, through the bait shop and parking lot, and out onto the beach, she could no longer see if the twins were still on the pier. The sun had sunk completely behind the motel roof and the water was losing its sunset tinge. As Sadie trudged through the sand, a slender woman in a bikini walked past, an infant in her arms, a man a few feet away from them snapping pictures. Further down the beach, a family gathered seashells in a bucket. Her mother’s bathing suit bottoms had nearly come off in the force of the waves, her wide, white buttocks exposed in the dying light, their surface dimpled and uneven, like raw meat. Sadie knelt behind her mother and grabbed the slick material of her bathing suit, pulling with all of her strength, until the fabric once again covered her mother’s white flesh. She felt the cool of the ocean on her sandaled feet. “Sadie!” her mother said, “you found us.” Mickey raised a koozie at Sadie and grinned. “Gimme!” Sadie’s mother shouted, laying backwards and reaching out to Mickey. He leaned over and rested one of the koozies on her mountainous belly and they both laughed at the way the beer balanced there a moment before toppling over into the surf.
Sadie walked out into the ocean a few steps, then a few steps more, leaving her mother and Mickey to the waves. There was a dip at the place where the waves crashed against the sand, and there, Sadie found herself waist deep – “shark depth,” the boy twin had told her, a merry glint in his eye. Before she went under, she looked back at her mother, who was still lying on her back in the sand, the top of her two piece swim suit pushed up her chest and exposing her gelatinous white belly. “They lose their color when they die,” the boy twin had told her. “So it’s easy to step on them by accident.”
Sadie wanted to laugh. Or maybe cry. So much of the world she had never touched, so much she didn’t know. In sixteen summers of beach trips, she’d never swum in the ocean. She had only waded, like her mother was now, like a child would, letting the waves come to her. But tonight she was going to swim, shark or no shark, jellyfish or not (“Moon jellyfish don’t sting,” the boy had said). She submerged her shoulders and then her hair, which felt cool and heavy on her shoulders. She floated on her back for a second, the moon just starting to take shape in the sky above her, then turned on to her stomach and began to pull at the water with her hands, striking out towards the horizon, every stroke of her arm pulling her closer.
It seemed like hours before she stopped swimming. And then, almost immediately, she felt afraid. Was swimming in the ocean – like, actually swimming – something that people even did? Was this something else she had missed? She had seen people with surfboards and boogie boards, she had seen people wading in the waves, riding them in from close to shore. But she had not, she realized now, seen anyone swimming the way you would in a pool, the way she had just been doing, a full out head-down freestyle. Mixed in with the knowledge that she’d gotten even this wrong was a sick sort of panic. Her heart was beating so fast she could hardly tread water. Her mother was just a hazy dot on the beach, and she couldn’t see Mickey at all. How far away she was now from everything! From the motel and the pool and her mother and Mickey, from Rachel and Cassie and rollercoasters and boys of all kinds.
Up above her, on the pier, the halogen lights were a string of moons to match the real one. She closed her eyes. “I could sink,” she thought. She opened them again. Between the halogen moons was another light, a red one, tiny, looping in tight wild circles, and then a voice. “Girl!” it was calling. “Girl, hey!”
It was the boy twin, waving a lit cigarette in the air. He was calling out to her, Sadie realized. “Float!” he was yelling to her, “Float on your back!” Beside him, the girl was following suit. “Float!” she was screaming, shrill as a seagull. “Float!” And she remembered now, something the boy had said earlier about sharks and struggling swimmers –how you should float to appear less threatening. “Keep your body parallel to the water’s surface,” he had said. It seemed an enormous effort, when she pulled her knees up to her chest, to float instead of sink, but she saw his red light waving and decided to try, just for a second. She inhaled and pushed her hips up towards the sky, her shoulders down. Her legs and arms rose up as if lifted there. She could hear nothing now but the hollow echo of the sea, a pulsing in her ears that followed her heartbeat. Her breath came easier. She looked up and there was the boy, waving his cigarette, his mouth open, calling down to her. Sadie closed her eyes and floated.
The next time she opened her eyes, she was beneath the pier, which was a dark tunnel in the newly fallen night. Sadie knew she should feel afraid. She saw the shadow of one of the pier’s pilings pass her by but did not reach out for it. She closed her eyes again.
Eventually, the swells she was riding started to curl and crash. Sadie felt her shoulder brush up against the sand, and a moment later, her feet. She didn’t understand at first that the men in the blue uniforms were there for her, with their flotation devices and their sleek white trucks with flashing lights. The men barely had to wet their trousers to retrieve her from the water, one on each side, carrying her to the waiting ambulance. Sadie had to explain, more than once, that she didn’t jump. “First I swam,” she said. “And then I floated.”
Sadie’s mother was standing with a paramedic, sobbing. Mickey stood off to the side, looking over the slope of his belly down to his bare feet. Their beers were gone, the koozies too, discarded somewhere on the beach. “My baby,” Sadie’s mother was saying. “My baby.” The paramedics helped her into the ambulance and hooked her up to an IV. “Dehydration,” they said. Sadie’s mother reached out to Sadie and wiggled her fingers, but Sadie pretended not to see. Instead, she laid very still on the gurney, listening to the men’s voices swirling around her, their fingers pressing on her sternum, her forehead. A light now, in each eye, a probing of her belly. One of them pulled the hair back from her forehead to check inside her ears. But then, no water in her lungs, no dehydration, no abrasions. Only, “You’ll need to get some rest, and some lotion for that rash on the back of your legs.”
“What rash?” Sadie asked.
“From the jellyfish,” the paramedic said.
The twins were standing a few feet away from the ambulance, just outside the circle of light cast by its open doors. It felt like a party, with the flashing lights and the sound of the waves and everyone standing on the sand like that in a circle around Sadie. Sadie felt sorry when the paramedic told the twins to go on home and then helped her mother out of the ambulance. Mickey took her mother’s arm and led her up the small flight of stairs to the parking lot, then through the parking lot and up the stairs to room 213. Sadie followed behind, her shorts and tank top crusty with sea water, her hair hanging in ropey strands. When she looked behind her before stepping into the motel room, she saw that the twins were still in the parking lot, standing side by side at the pool gate, one like the shadow of the other.
Inside, the room was ice-cold, the A/C unit in the wall turned on full-blast. A layer of cold perspiration coated the walls and the blankets were tossed in heaps on the bed. Sadie shut off the A/C and then arranged the blankets where her mother had laid down sideways on the bed, trying to cover her, folding them down just under her chin, smoothing her thin hair out on the pillow. “You’re okay,” her mother whispered, stroking Sadie’s hand, which Sadie had laid over her chest. And then again, “You’re okay.” When Mickey emerged from the bathroom, he climbed into the bed next to Sadie’s mother and was asleep within seconds, so still he could have been dead. It was easy, for just a second, to wish that he was.
Sadie pulled the comforter off of her bed and carried it out to the balcony, laying it out like a rug. Out in the pool, she could see that the twins had decided to go for a night swim – the girl twin in her bathing suit and the boy twin in his dark t-shirt, the two of them silent but for the noise they made moving through the water. Sadie watched them for a while, their fluid weightlessness, the grace of their sizable frames in the half-lit pool. They were separate from her, but the same, like two variations of the same species. She laid down on her side and watched them, the backs of her thighs and arms throbbing from the jellyfish stings. When she closed her eyes, she could see the tip of the boy twin’s cigarette looping in the darkness behind her eyelids.
“I thought you said the jellyfish don’t sting,” she said to the boy the next morning. Her mother and Mickey had packed their bags and were waiting in the car. But Sadie saw the twins in the pool and told Mickey to stop a second, she’d left something by the pool. The boy shrugged. “Maybe it’s cause there were so many,” he said. “They carried you in.”
Sadie shook her head. “No, I floated. Like you said I should.”
“Yeah,” the girl said from the shallow end. “But they were all floatin’ under you, like a big purple life raft.”
They were all quiet for a minute, conjuring the image.
“Better than getting your arm bit off,” the boy finally said.
Then, she didn’t know why, she leaned over and kissed the boy on his pudgy, sunburned cheek. The boy didn’t move a muscle, just looked at her like she’d slapped him, and then she leaned in and kissed him one more time, on the lips.
“Thank you,” the boy said.
“Oooh!” she could hear the girl twin squealing as she walked back to the car, “I’m telling!” But already the boy was back in the pool, punishing her with a splash of water to the face. Mickey put the car in drive and they pulled slowly out of the parking lot. Through the front office window, Sadie could see the motel owner’s son behind the counter, staring up at the television screen. What does he know about the ocean, Sadie asked herself. Absolutely nothing she answered. Not one goddamn thing.
Katherine Van Dis is a writer living in Durham, North Carolina with her husband and two young sons. Though Katherine has lived in Durham for fifteen years, her roots are in Michigan, where she attended the University of Michigan and received a Hopwood Award for fiction. Her work has most recently appeared in The Los Angeles Review. She is currently working on a collection of short stories called Our Lady of Sorrows.