Lydia Copeland Gwyn ~ Four New Stories

Tiny Doors

 

I stand with mos­qui­toes in my veil in the evening sun and speak words from some oth­er time: of cathe­drals and dances at the spring house, green cam­pus quads. The air is heavy with the smell of over­turned fields. I drop your ring on the lawn, but it still finds your fin­ger.

You have me sharp­en­ing knives. Petal thin against a wet stone kept black in a cook­ie tin in our pantry. The damp suck of the blade makes me think of my child­hood in the moun­tains and the day my father skinned a duck in the kitchen, slip­ping his knife into the loose skin behind the wing and pulling back. The duck’s white feath­ers lit the air as he worked, some of them land­ing on my ChapSticked lips. The hol­low under her wings, the shiny meat of her was so pret­ty to me. Her bill orange as the toy car under my bed, whose tiny doors opened to a tiny steer­ing wheel.

I step in the mop water, my socks gray and wet on our wood floors. I feel heavy and cold like being out­doors when you’re sick. When I was a child and I felt sick, I would dream of giant inner tubes, big enough to fit inside a bull­doz­er tire. The inner tubes would roll over hills of but­ter­cups in my dreams, and I’d watch the flower stems bend down and bounce back and think of vom­it­ing. I’d spin in my bed, and the tires would spin, the flow­ers would snap, and I’d feel sick.

Whenever I felt well again, I’d dream of a gold neck­lace under my shirt, warmed with my skin. A yel­low heat glow­ing inside me.

I shov­el the clay of our yard and think of riverbeds. The drained field of my grandfather’s prop­er­ty and all the fresh­wa­ter clam shells I’d find there as a girl, white as palms. I saw with a slow, untrained hand the sil­ver branch­es of a fall­en birch, the blade wob­bling with my wrist. You show me how to steady, how to set my inten­tions in the motion of pulling back.

I can’t stop to think of what came before and how that too was love even when it smashed chairs with a ham­mer and slammed my face into the trem­bling glass of the school bus win­dow. Your hands are nev­er burs with me. You are calm and cool as linen.

Tonight in our bed you sleep, and I long for you. My long­ing is a hitch in my throat that makes it hard to swal­low, hard to breathe deeply.I want to reach over and drape across you and have you swell with love for me. Love for all my faults. My for­get­ful, day­dream­ing mind. My many sighs.

I slip into the old streets on which we hon­ey­mooned. The cob­ble­stone of the Revolutionary War. I hear the groan of dead ships on the bot­tom of Lake Ontario. Their met­al requiems rust­ing away. There I am in that black dress and there you are with a con­tain­er of cher­ries and a wedge of cheese. The hinge of your glass­es held in place by a paper­clip. We walk into a dome of pro­tect­ed but­ter­flies. Wings pause like breaths flung open. When I die it will be these places that I see last. You in the rain-swollen streets. The slip of rivers over a lime­stone ledge. The mist that ris­es up from the rocks. And I will remem­ber how you told me that all the water that will ever be is already here.

Lemon as a Color

 

I sat in Sam’s truck and sucked the tips of my hair, which were wet from the pool, the taste of chlo­rine like met­al in my mouth. We were stopped at a red light, and when it changed he stripped gears. “If you can’t find it grind it,” he said.

I want­ed to rub my hand up the fad­ed indi­go of his thigh. I want­ed him to push his fin­ger through my lips onto my tongue like last week in the park­ing lot at school. I turned my head to look at the inter­state traf­fic and thought about Claire again. How Sam would return to her at the end of day and prob­a­bly find her on the stair­case pulling up car­pet tacks with a crow­bar. They want­ed the house to be fin­ished before their wed­ding. Might even have the wed­ding there. Claire could walk down that very stair­case.

The land­marks of our town appeared with the next bridged exit. Clinton had state-foot­ball-themed gas sta­tions and used car lots with dou­ble-wides for offices. The high school where Sam taught and where I was a stu­dent was mud-brown brick with barbed wire fenc­ing around the whole cam­pus that made it look like a prison.

We’d spent the after­noon in Carryville, a town so small and so far down the inter­state no one would rec­og­nize us. There was one hotel there, right off the exit, called the Christmas Tree Inn. It’s sign was a two sto­ry plas­tic Christmas tree with neon script draped through it like a gar­land.

My biki­ni bot­toms were soak­ing through my shorts and damp­en­ing the car seat. We’d for­got­ten to bring tow­els. I knew when I arrived home din­ner would already be on the table. It would be one of the meals my father cooked on the week­ends, froze, and then reheat­ed after work. Vegetable lasagna prob­a­bly with that weird hazel­nut gravy he spread in the bot­tom of the pan before assem­bling the lay­ers. My father was good at the things my moth­er used to do. Making din­ner. Ordering a cake from the gro­cery store the week before my birth­day. Reading over my AP English papers. When he bought me maxi pads he called them Band-Aids.

The trick with a hotel pool was to act like you had a room there and to look right at the front desk clerk and say hel­lo as though the two of you had already met. “You can go any­where in a hotel if you behave like a guest,” Sam had said.

In the pool that day he cir­cled his fin­gers around my wrist and leaned in to kiss me. We’d kissed before, but this time was dif­fer­ent. This time Claire’s face didn’t pop into my head the moment I closed my eyes. Instead of Sam’s, I some­times felt like I was kiss­ing her lips, thin and peel­ing under the wax of chap­stick. My heart was beat­ing into his hand, the pulse hard in my wrist. Bright wheels turned. An orange cir­cle, a warm light. Lemon as a col­or. Lemon as a cloud float­ing by on my hill-less lawn. I went to the old places. The black tree hang­ing over the pond in my back­yard. The scent of my mother’s sham­poo and the smell of our house when she was alive. Horseshoes in my hand. The smooth bend of their turn like the knoll of a shoul­der or the curve of a breast. Sam released my wrist and his hand slipped under my suit bot­toms, and I felt the warmth of me leave my body and spread into the pool water.

From what I’d heard, every­thing round was a breast to men. Kneecaps, ankle bones, elbows, the back of a woman’s head. I won­dered about all the breasts Sam must have held in his mind. I thought again about Claire. What did her breasts look like? How was it when they fucked? Did she stay on top? Sometimes in bed at night, after I’d fin­ished whis­per­ing the day’s events to my moth­er, I’d imag­ine I was Claire. I’d stand in her waifish body in a show­er and rinse the soap from her skin.

When we pulled in the dri­ve­way, there was my father sit­ting on the porch swing. He’d changed out of his work clothes and was drink­ing a glass of brandy, my mother’s old favorite. Sam pat­ted me on the shoul­der like a teacher would and waved to my father. “See you tomor­row,” he said. I waved good-bye and head­ed up the walk.

It Stood Up into Its Own Thing

 

There was a gap under the door and my hand went there and felt for the door mat, which was scratchy like a big piece of burlap. I found the dead bod­ies of spi­ders and brown bee­tles light as fall leaves on the thresh­old. My cheek pressed into the shag of the green car­pet, and I could see a strip of the out­side. The wheels of my babysitter’s car. The wet grav­el in the dri­ve­way. I was there for the fourth day in a row, while my par­ents took my baby broth­er to one doc­tor after anoth­er search­ing for the cause of his leg pain and high fever.

In the liv­ing room, there were pink vel­vet cur­tains over the win­dows thick as tongues, and a man stood in the cen­ter of the room, toss­ing a baby up to the ceil­ing and catch­ing him on the way down. Tossing and catch­ing. The man was the babysitter’s hus­band and the baby was his boy. The baby laughed and laughed until a string of drool dripped from his low­er lip. My heart caught in my throat each time the baby went up, and for the brief moment he was splayed mid-air I felt that tick­le in my stom­ach that I got when my father drove fast over the hill to our house.

In anoth­er room, the babysitter’s oth­er son pushed a toy truck over the floor and sang a song about con­voys and Tulsa town. His name was Edward, and when he was nice to me we played with his plas­tic boats in the bath­room sink. His hair was so curly it stood up into its own thing, and his lips were as pale as the rest of his face, so from far away he looked fea­ture­less and ill. There was a cac­tus on the book­shelf that I’d been told not to touch, but I touched it any­way, and a nee­dle came out into my fin­ger as elec­tric as a bee sting. When I cried the babysit­ter picked me up and pulled me into her lap. She removed the nee­dle and held me against her chest, rock­ing me like I was her child. She had her own smell like a can of sweet corn and her own vocab­u­lary of calm­ing words. “There, there,” she said. “It will all be over soon.” I felt her neck against my face, the brush of her hair, the strange love of some­one else’s moth­er. I caught a glimpse of the sky out­side the kitchen win­dow.

The White Breath of Cows

 

We had just moved to a new house in my husband’s old hometown–the first house we’d ever owned, and some days I couldn’t find my way home from work. I mem­o­rized land­marks. The day­time land­mark of the used car lot that was real­ly someone’s front yard. The night­time land­mark of the farm down the street and the blue lights lin­ing their dri­ve­way.

Right before Christmas the cold came, and my son asked me if he was going through “a lit­tle bit of puber­ty” because all he could think about was Anna. He was nine but had always seemed old­er.

I didn’t tell him how I’d dis­cov­ered his secret mes­sage in the show­er steam. I didn’t tell him how I showed his father, and how I stood there in a damp tow­el and drip­ping hair smil­ing about what his fin­ger had drawn. I love Anna.

On Christmas break, my son read aloud chap­ters of a book about res­cue dogs. Dogs search­ing for injured dol­phins. Dogs pulling their own­ers from the train tracks just in time. He argued with me more. Said he want­ed to learn how to win. How to get bet­ter and bet­ter. I picked up his dirty socks, his cheese stick wrap­pers, and stopped nag­ging as much.

The dust of the new house col­lect­ed in the cor­ners of the rooms. I pulled out my pine cone bed sheets and went deep into weave of their flan­nel. In my dream­ing life, the taste of ash filled my plates, the drip of wax, the heat held under the Earth swelled into my mouth, my brain.

In my dri­ving life I found new roads that led to town. Roads with hol­low barns and frost-tipped grass, the white breath of cows in pas­tures. I watched for pos­sums, rac­coons. One morn­ing on the way to work, I went into the black eyes of a buck by the road­side, and I knew his deci­sion to turn down­hill back toward the creek before he ever moved.

By Christmas day the camp­fire smell was gone from the air, but out­side the world seemed a fad­ed porch screen. Smoke and fog and my own breath bled togeth­er when I walked the dog that morn­ing. I looked up at our new house, at my son’s bed­room on the sec­ond floor. My son was sleep­ing longer than usu­al, and I thought of him there in his bed, balled up under the cov­ers the way he slept as a baby and still slept, hair slick with sweat.

The leaves in our yard were so thick, the grass so dry beneath, that I kept slip­ping up the hill. I looked up at our new house, at my son’s bed­room on the sec­ond floor.

~

Lydia Copeland Gwyn’s sto­ries and poems have appeared or are forth­com­ing in Appalachian Heritage, Fiction Southeast, Elm Leaves Journal, Glimmer TrainFlorida Review, Jellyfish Review, and oth­ers. She lives in East Tennessee with her hus­band, son, and daugh­ter.