Kim Magowan & Michelle Ross ~ Accountability Buddies

When Donna brings home the exer­cise book from the library, her eight-year-old daugh­ter Tess says of the bare-stom­ached woman on the book’s cov­er, “Sexy! She’s got six-pack abs!”

Donna looks at the abs in ques­tion. What she sees is cater­pil­lar poop. Donna’s back­yard veg­etable gar­den is sprin­kled with ridged cater­pil­lar turds, like tiny grenades. That’s because the tree branch­es that reach out over the gar­den are infest­ed with giant green cater­pil­lars big­ger than her hus­band Theo’s thick fin­gers.

What do you mean, ‘Sexy’?” Donna asks Tess. “Where’d you hear that word?”

For that mat­ter, where did Tess hear “abs” and “six-pack”? Are these terms eight-year-olds light­ly toss around? She wants to ask her friend Lynette—Lynette has a daugh­ter six months old­er than Tess, and often the two women will exchange the words their chil­dren say. Except, come to think of it, Lynette will be judge‑y. There’s a pat­tern to the words Lynette’s kid says, and the sub­text is that they’re all signs of Giselle’s incip­i­ent genius. Only a bril­liant not-quite-nine-year-old would know about con­vec­tion ovens; only a prodi­gy would describe her­self, when she fell off her bike, as being “wound­ed,” as opposed to “hurt.” Whereas a kid who says “sexy” and “abs” sounds like a kid who’s watched too many Kardashians slith­er and flex, a kid who will grow into a tween who wears tiny shorts that bare­ly cov­er her ass.

Donna loves Lynette, but Lynette is chal­leng­ing. “Love” may in fact be the wrong word. Donna “has” Lynette, like her yard has trees that are stress­ful to sit under because of the risk of being defe­cat­ed upon by cater­pil­lars.

Lynette is, in fact, why Donna checked this exer­cise book out from the library. Lynette asked Donna to be her account­abil­i­ty bud­dy. The deal is that Lynette’s going to vlog about DIY crafts projects three days a week, and Donna’s job is to nudge her toward suc­cess by touch­ing base and encour­ag­ing her. But to make this whole account­abil­i­ty bud­dy thing work, Lynette said it has to be bal­anced. “You have to have a goal of your own that I help you with. Otherwise, prob­a­bly I’ll just get annoyed with you pes­ter­ing me about the vlog,” Lynette said. A warn­ing bell instant­ly went off in Donna’s head, like it did every time she got tempt­ed to vent to Lynette about some griev­ance she had with Theo. Venting about Theo’s self­ish­ness in bed or the time he spends on social media feels sat­is­fy­ing in the moment, but Lynette pock­ets every insult, every fault. Then, weeks lat­er, Lynette will say of her Ray, “Sex has been incred­i­ble late­ly!” or “Did I tell you Ray has this new thing where he doesn’t touch his phone or the com­put­er all week­end? Instead he made sour­dough bread from scratch!”

This account­abil­i­ty bud­dy thing is going to come back to bite her, too.

Donna tries to remem­ber if get­ting in shape was even her idea; she sus­pects not. Donna wor­ries some­times about her brain—a tumor or ear­ly onset Alzheimer’s—but she is near­ly pos­i­tive she pro­posed com­plet­ing that knit­ting project she began over a year ago and prompt­ly gave up. Because what on earth is more monot­o­nous than knit­ting a sweater? Well, exer­cise for one. And didn’t Lynette then purse her lips and say, “Hmm. You could do that. Or! What about get­ting into shape?” Maybe Lynette didn’t even say it, but thought it, and beamed that thought at Donna, via her pursed lips and a cer­tain you-can-do-bet­ter cast to her face. Donna grew up with a high­ly manip­u­la­tive moth­er who was always chas­ing cults—her moth­er had both want­ed to con­trol Donna and her var­i­ous hus­bands, but had longed to be told what to do herself—and that made Donna par­tic­u­lar­ly sus­cep­ti­ble to sub­tle forms of mind con­trol.

What’s wrong with ‘sexy’?” Tess says now, con­fused. “It’s not a bad word.”

Not bad, exact­ly. But prob­lem­at­ic,” says Donna. “Remember back when we saw Sleeping Beauty, and the first fairy gives baby Aurora the gift of beau­ty, and the sec­ond one gives her the gift of song? And I said, man, that gift sucks, I can think of about eight hun­dred gifts I would rather have than the gift of song?”

‘Sucks’ is a bad word,” Tess says, cold­ly. “Giselle start­ed a sexy club. Only sexy girls can join. Right now it’s me, Giselle, Annie Pruitt, and Carmen. I’m sexy because of my lips.”

What Donna was about to say was that she’d been wrong to sin­gle out the suck­i­ness of the gift of song. She want­ed to say some­thing about how tricky beau­ty is, how eas­i­ly it fools us into giv­ing up our val­ues, our dig­ni­ty. She was going to tell Tess about the Greek god­dess Hera, how she turned away her son, Hephaestus, because he had a deformed foot—in oth­er words, because she deemed him ugly.

But now Donna is pre­oc­cu­pied with her daughter’s self-claimed sexy lips. Granted, Tess does have nice lips. She’s inher­it­ed Donna’s lips, and the truth is Donna has long rec­og­nized her lips are one of her best fea­tures. Did she think this at the age of eight? Donna doesn’t think so, but her mem­o­ry, of course, is shit. She does recall think­ing as a girl how grate­ful she was that she didn’t inher­it her own mother’s lips, which were so thin they made her think of the drawn-on black line of her Raggedy Ann doll’s lips. Kissing a mouth like that would be like kiss­ing the rigid trash­can mouth of Pac-Man. Almost no cush­ion over the teeth.

Who decid­ed your lips are sexy? Giselle?” Donna sup­press­es a smile. Oh, how she will enjoy telling Lynette about how her lit­tle prodi­gy is herd­ing her fel­low third-graders into Sexy Club. It’s the first time in months that Donna has looked for­ward to call­ing Lynette. She imag­ines her own voice (con­cerned but severe) deliv­er­ing news that will land like one of those grenade-shaped cater­pil­lar turds.

~

Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teach­es in the Department of Literatures and Languages at Mills College. Her short sto­ry col­lec­tion Undoing (2018) won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award. Her nov­el The Light Source (2019) is pub­lished by 7.13 Books. Her fic­tion has been pub­lished in Atticus Review, Cleaver, The Gettysburg Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, Wigleaf, and many oth­er jour­nals. Her sto­ries have been select­ed for Best Small Fictions and Wigleaf’s Top 50. She is the Fiction Editor of Pithead Chapel.  www.kimmagowan.com

Michelle Ross is the author of There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You (2017), which won the 2016 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award. Her fic­tion has recent­ly appeared or is forth­com­ing in Alas­ka Quarterly Review, Colorado Review, Pidgeonholes, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, SmokeLong Quarterly, and oth­er venues. Her sto­ries have been select­ed for Wigleaf’s Top 50 and Best Microfictions. She is Fiction Editor of Atticus Review. She lives in Tucson, Arizona. www.michellenross.com