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