Reprinted from Blip Magazine Archive Vol 13 No 4
I’m at my cousin’s house, watching her fix dinner for her twins, who are trying to toss themselves out of their highchairs. When I take care of them, my only goal is to keep them alive but I don’t bother with them now because Courtney’s here and if they crack their heads open it’s all on her.
She cuts the hot dog lengthwise and chops it up like a tomato. Then she opens a can of green beans and fishes out the stalks with her fingers.
The phone rings. I answer it. It’s her husband, Wade. He thinks I’m Courtney and I don’t correct him. He says he’s on his way home, he’s running a little late, he’s sorry. I hear an ambulance in the background. “There’s a bad wreck,” he says, and then he tells me he loves me. I hang up.
“He’s on his way.”
She points to a basket of laundry. “Would you mind folding those towels while you’re just sitting there?”
“Let me finish my drink first.”
I have no intention of folding her towels. I have enough trouble folding my own towels.
I watch her flit about and remember the reason I came over here. I figure the best way to get information about her people is to insult one of mine. “My sister never returns my phone calls, she’s such a bitch,” I say, and I remember the time my sister screwed her over, the stink that followed.
“She just doesn’t think sometimes,” she says diplomatically.
“Only about herself.”
She twists her red hair into a pile on top of her head and sits down. We look at the twins, squishing bits of hot dog in their fists, waxing beans into their trays. She gives them a stern look and says, “Eat.” They look like all babies: big-headed and big-eyed and pale, nothing special.
“So tell me about Erin’s new husband. Do you like him?” I ask. I heard no one likes him and it isn’t just because he installs sewer systems for a living. He’s been in trouble, my mother told me, but she wouldn’t say what for. People don’t tell me anything because I have a big mouth.
“Well—,” she says, stalling. “I promised Erin I wouldn’t talk about it, but he has a rap sheet.”
“Like what, he got busted for pot or something?”
“No, more like statutory rape of a thirteen-year-old girl. Of course he swears up and down he didn’t do it. Up and down. But still, these are the kind of people he hangs around—trash. But then he’s trash, too. He wears these big gold chains and you should see his chest hair.” She makes her hand a claw and holds it between her breasts to show me what this looks like.
I say, “Gold chains are terrible,” and she looks at me like no shit.
Her dog comes over and sticks his nose in my crotch. I push his head away but he keeps coming back because I have my period and I remember the time she told me she was trusting her tampon. This was before the slogan, Trust Is Tampax. We were smoking behind the movie theater and waiting for her mother to pick us up in her station wagon.
“Mustang, get offa her,” she says.
“Just kick him, if you want. I don’t think these kids are hungry.”
We look at the food they’ve thrown all over the floor and shake our heads. I’m glad I don’t have to clean it up. I don’t know what I’d do if I had to clean up hot dog and shit all day long.
The garage door opens, closes. Wade comes in. He kisses his wife, his children, slaps his dog and says, “Good boy,” before turning to me. “Was that you on the phone?” I smile. He wags his finger.
Wade is getting fat, but I still want to sleep with him, and I think he wants to sleep with me, too. Of course I think nearly everyone wants to sleep with me. I don’t know why this is. Maybe everyone thinks this way, or I’m nuts. Courtney is mean to him. She talks to him in a voice reserved only for him because he’s a doctor but he doesn’t make as much money as she expected him to make. She tells me, there are rich doctors and there are poor doctors, but they live in a big house and she drives a nice car so I don’t know what she’s complaining about.
Wade sits down and I ask him if he wants a glass of wine.
“That’d be great.”
I pour him one and top mine off. Courtney doesn’t drink, except on special occasions, and this isn’t one of them. It is one more reason to hate her.
She tells Wade to clean the kitchen and he says, “Can I rest for two seconds, please?” and she says, “I don’t care what you do. Rest forever,” and takes the babies upstairs, one on each hip. She has already lost the baby weight. She likes for her wallet to match her purse to match her shoes to match her outfit.
We wait a moment for the air to clear.
“How was your day?” I ask.
“It was bad and then I came home,” he says. He works with a kind of incurable cancer and it gets him down. When Courtney’s sick, he avoids her. He can’t even prescribe my birth control pills. I always imagined doctors could fix things, but now I know that some doctors fix nothing. And all day long, people asking for things they can’t deliver.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“I feel like going somewhere.”
“Like where?” he asks.
“Oh I don’t know, out to dinner maybe, or Madagascar.”
“I’ve been reading this blog and the girl’s in Madagascar right now. She’s trying to join this club where you have to set foot in a hundred countries in order to belong. I like how it has all these words built in: mad, gas, car.”
“I hadn’t thought about that,” he says.
The dog rests his head on my leg and I feed him a potato chip.
“I have my period,” I say, running my scissor fingers over his soft ears. I am always announcing my period to everybody. My mother says if I didn’t say anything no one would know, but I can’t help it. I know.
“Did you take something?”
“You should take something,” he says. “Courtney wants to go to Cancun. She sent off for this catalogue that lists all these resorts and they all look alike but she still managed to pick out the most expensive one.” I want to tell him Courtney is wrong for him, but they have a house and two kids and wedding photos hanging everywhere and maybe if I had these things with him it would be the same: I’d be bitchy and the children would be awful and spoiled, the house dirty. At night, I’d have to beg him for it.
“I can’t think of anywhere I want to go less.”
“So where do you want to go?”
“Alaska.” He looks up at the ceiling and blinks.
“I hear it’s a good place to find a man,” I say, and I think of my boyfriend, his olive skin and hazel eyes, and how, nine months ago he changed the song on his MySpace page to Don’t You (Forget About Me) and that’s how I knew he was dead. I got his furniture and his things, since they were already in our apartment, and I still live among them, but when people look at me now they don’t think: her boyfriend killed himself, or maybe they still do. I don’t know. I should move.
“Not your type,” he says.
“I’d find me a big olé rugged man and we’d live in a cabin he built with his own two hands.”
“You’d get tired of cabin living.”
“You don’t know.”
“You aren’t really the rough-it kind. You’re more of a room service girl, like my wife.”
“No offense but I’m nothing like you’re wife,” I say. I let that soak in for a minute and then I tell him that I’d find me a big olé rugged man who liked to watch meteor showers and write poetry and drink wine and he wishes me luck.
“Don’t be so negative,” I say.
“I’m just kidding. I’m sure you could find a sensitive poet who builds cabins in his spare time and only drinks merlot.”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you,” I say, and I smile and he smiles and we get stuck there until he gets up and uncorks another bottle. I thread my fingers through the dog’s hair, past the scratchy top layer to the soft undercoat.
“He’s shedding pretty bad right now,” he says. I pull my hand out and look at it, covered in stiff black hairs. I turn it over slowly, like that scene in Back to the Future when Michael J. Fox is disappearing. “I need to w‑a-l‑k him.”
“Uh oh,” I say.
“Do you want to come?”
“I don’t know. Can I bring my drink?”
“If you want,” he says, but I know he doesn’t want me to because their neighborhood is full of rich people keeping up appearances. God is big, as are fences and dogs and babies. I don’t have a house or a fence or a dog or a baby and God and I are currently on a break. I think about that picture with the two sets of footprints in the sand and how there’s only one set during the worst times because that’s when God carries you but what good is being carried if you don’t realize you’re being carried, if you get to the end of your life and have to ask?
“I told Courtney I’d fold these towels,” I say, because I just want to sit here with him a little while longer, because I know he won’t leave, but then the babies start crying. We look up at the empty stairs.
“Bath time,” he says.
“They’re such sweet boys,” I say. “Do you love them a lot?”
“Yeah. Sometimes I love them so much. It’s overwhelming.”
“What about the other times?”
He shrugs. “You can’t walk around all the time feeling like your heart’s going to burst.”
The water cuts off. I set my purse in my lap, soft black leather, full. Inside, my boyfriend’s wallet, exactly as he left it minus five large bills and six small ones, which I gave away to a homeless man. I look through it when I have to wait somewhere, read the business cards and flip through the pictures of his sister and his mother, eighteen-year-old me.
“I better go,” I say, but I don’t move. It’s like a boulder, pressing me down, and I remember how, when I first started carrying a purse, it was empty so I filled it with things I didn’t need, to take up space.
Mary Miller is an American fiction writer, author of two collections of short stories entitled Big World and Always Happy Hour. Her debut novel entitled The Last Days of California was published by Liveright. It is the story of a fourteen-year-old girl on a family road trip from the South to California, led by her evangelical father.