Outside Paula’s window, the leaves were almost gone from the maple tree. She worried about her friend Andrea. Two weeks ago the tree blazed orange and scarlet, and now it was just skeletal branches against the dim and misty sky. And in six months it would bud green and gold. She hoped Andrea would get well. She closed the book that she’d been trying to read, a new translation of the Odyssey for the next semester, closed it on the page where Odysseus speaks with his mother in Hades.
Paula remembered her mother before she died. Young and slender, younger than Paula, who was fifty-two and looking matronly with her big hips. Paula never got to see her mother grow old. She had, at last, forgiven her for dying.
“Paula, dear.” Her mother appeared, wearing the apron Paula had sewn when she was in seventh grade, a cotton print of roses and baby angels with wings. “I want you to study hard.”
“Yes, Mother, I do.”
“I want you to get all A’s.”
“I only got one B. That was in Civics.”
“I know. You hate reading the newspaper.”
“I like reading books.”
“When I was your age, I liked books of fairy tales.”
“Were you twelve once?”
Her mother lightly flicked the tip of Paula’s nose. “Don’t mock your old mother.”
The next year, her slender and beautiful mother drove to the Fifth Street Bridge, got out of the car, climbed over the rail, and jumped into the river. She was thirty-seven. Paula’s brother was ten, and at first he thought she would somehow return. “Mickey expected you to come back a week later.”
“I was truly dead and gone,” her mother’s ghost said. “I missed all of you. Your father, of course, but you and Mickey most of all. I wanted to see you grow up.”
“Look at me, Mother. I’m fifty-two. You must be seventy-seven.”
“You’re beautiful, but I see a thirteen-year-old.”
“I got my Ph.D.” Paula pointed to her framed diploma with the gold-colored seal in the corner. “I’m a professor.”
“Funny, you look thirteen to me.” Her mother touched her own cheek with her familiar gesture of puzzlement.
Paula stared at this young, aproned woman with her chestnut-brown hair and her clear eyes. She wondered what her mother would’ve been like if she had survived depression. Her mother would be judging her: “You should find a nice man and have children.”
“Mother, I’m fifty-two.”
“You could adopt.”
“Mother, that ship has sailed.”
“I liked Evan.”
“You were gone before I met him. How could you have known?”
Her mother shrugged and put on a tricky expression. “I have my ways.”
“He’s dead. Cancer.”
“Perhaps in another pocket of time he would be alive?”
“What are you talking about?”
“I always liked science, you know that. Your father called it woo-woo science. But there are all sorts of things. Horatio says, ‘More things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’”
Paula shook her head at her woo-woo mother.
Paula’s cat, Schrödinger, trotted in, tail perpendicular, confident, alert, powerful. She bent down to pet him, and he felt warm and solid.
Paula looked up and saw a vase of wilting roses on the nightstand and an old mother lying on a bed, the golden afternoon pouring down on her. But this was not possible. This mother had white, floaty hair. Her eyes seemed cloudy. This was a future that never happened. The living room had become a bed chamber.
Paula’s head buzzed.
Her cat, Schrödinger, ambled in, now skinny and old. Then Atom, her mother’s cat, came in meowing, stropping her ankles. “Okay, sweeties. I’ll get you a fresh can.” But they weren’t interested in food.
Her father had loved that cat, especially after his wife died.
Atom jumped up on the bed, and the old mother petted him until he nipped at her. “He only likes a certain amount of petting. Such a particular, fine cat.” She smiled and turned her creamy, cataracted eyes on Paula. “I saved him from death. I found him as an abandoned kitten, and I saved him. I don’t know where he is now.”
“We put him to sleep.”
“I don’t know where he is now.” Her mother’s face was infinitely sad. “So many things I don’t know. What is love? Will the universe unravel? Will there be a union of body and soul? Will we see again the people and creatures we loved?”
“And have you been healed of your depression?”
She sliced the air with her hand. “My pain is over.”
“Oh, Mother, that’s good.”
“I love to see your happy face. I can take that memory to eternity. Are you happy, dear? No danger? You don’t have my depression?”
Her cat, Schrödinger, trotted in. In this version her mother was young again.
“I just have a bad cold,” Paula said. “My October respiratory infection.” She coughed for her mother, a little, jagged exhalation.
“Don’t make light of it.”
“Only a mom would take this seriously. My friends get colds and we just pooh-pooh their complaining.”
“I used to get those heavy infections around my lungs, hot around my heart and throat,” her young mother said.
“I feel so sorry for you.”
“That’s in the past.” She waved dismissively. “No respiratory infections anymore. All gone.” She opened her arms wide, as if to display her health.
“Andrea has lung cancer.” Paula wanted to rush into her mother’s arms and tell her about her friend. “Will she get better?”
Her mother straightened the hem of her apron. “I was remembering about the past–that is to say, you were remembering. Anyway, you and Andrea were fighting about who was responsible for tearing the apron that you sewed in Home Ec class.”
“Andrea tore it–she pulled it out of my hand and caught it on a doorknob.” The perfect, unimportant memory made Paula shake her head at herself. She wanted to embrace her mother, but knew she was just a shade. “Will you come back?”
The young mother walked to the door, whispered, “Love,” fluttered her fingers, and disappeared.
Schrödinger meowed. Paula turned, picked him up, and hugged him to her chest.
Cezarija Abartis’ Nice Girls and Other Stories was published by New Rivers Press. Her stories have appeared in FriGG, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, The Lascaux Review, r.kv.r.y, and New York Tyrant, among others. Her flash, “The Writer,” was selected by Dan Chaon for Wigleaf’s Top 50 online Fictions of 2012 and “To Kiss a Bear” was selected for Wigleaf’s Longlist 2016. Recently she completed a novel, a thriller. She teaches at St. Cloud State University. Her website is http://magicmasterminds.com/cezarija/
My father stands on a branch high up in the sweet chestnut tree outside, peering through a telescope at the village along the valley. Way past my bedtime, I watch from my window, bare feet turning blue on the wood floor.
Dad leans forward. Maybe he’s searching for my mother. She hasn’t been around so much, and I wonder why. Is it something to do with him? Or me? Shifting his weight, he tries to find a firmer foothold. The branch creaks, then cracks, and he topples headlong. I catch my breath, yell to him, press my palms against the cold glass.
Outside the City Library, I’m singing in the school choir. I moved here to live with my foster family after Dad died. It’s Harvest Festival. We’ve drawn a big crowd. Second song in and there she is, standing at the back, my mother, in a red trench-coat and matching red beret. My voice breaks up, I stand taller, try to make eye contact, but she keeps her head bowed. I want to ask, Why are you here? To see me? After all this time?
She glances up. I can’t help myself. I run from the stage, plow through the crowd. Turning, she hurries away. I follow, my eyes on the red beret bobbing among the Saturday shoppers, but she doesn’t look back and I lose her in fog.
Christmas, and I’ve heard she’s moved back into the old house. I get up before the family wakes. I cycle all morning. From the top of Snowdrop Hill, the place nestles in the valley. I imagine how it will be inside. Warm. Carols on the radio. A tree, dressed in baubles and lights. The smell of turkey roasting in the oven. And her, standing at the kitchen counter, preparing vegetables, a rich cranberry sauce.
I pedal down and prop my bike against the fence, stopping to gaze at the sweet chestnut tree. From my rucksack, I take the gift I’ve bought her: a bottle of Charlie Blue. Always her favourite perfume. At least, it was. The side door isn’t locked, and I let myself in. Everywhere is cold, silent. No Christmas tree. No cooking smells.
In the living room I find her, crumpled on the sofa, sleeping. Bird’s-nest hair, smudged mascara. I kneel beside her, smooth her creased black dress. Resting my head on her chest, I feel her heartbeat, her breath cool against my face.
Digby Beaumont‘s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, KYSO Flash, Literary Orphans, Blue Five Notebook, Bartleby Snopes, Change Seven Magazine, Flash Frontier, Jellyfish Review and 100-Word Story among others. He worked as a nonfiction author for many years, with numerous publications, and lives in Hove, England.
Each kid on the field was just a container for teeth. A big rattling money jar for dentists and orthodontists.
Jan spent the game doing story problems: A dozen kids on a team with thirty-two teeth apiece. If they each needed braces at ten grand a crack …
She should have gone to dental school. That would have meant job security and at least then she could have taken Karen to Bring Your Daughter to Work Day or to the office after hours for treatment.
On Thursday, the dentist said Karen would need braces. But first: extractions, expansions, and various other procedures that made her daughter’s mouth sound like a major construction site.
She’d known this was coming. Years ago a hygienist looked into Karen’s mouth and said, “Wow, she has a lot of teeth!”
“Yeah, all of them,” she’d laughed, assuming Karen had the same teeth everyone had, which she did, but apparently not the space.
“Crowning,” Dr. Lucas called it, and now some of Karen’s teeth had to come out. Permanently.
The thought made Jan queasy. Didn’t we need our adult teeth? All of them? Would this be the kind of thing future dentists didn’t do any more? Like tonsillectomies? No one had those done now. Plus, where would she get the money? Dropping dental insurance had been part of workplace cutbacks. Eliminated. Extracted. Their new medical plan: Don’t get sick.
Each year around enrollment time, Jan put a box of tissues by the computer in preparation for the frustrated tears she would reliably shed. The plan descriptions were so bewildering she might as well have picked at random.
There were no “kitchen table” conversations for her. Not anymore. She used to ask Cathy Cornwall what they chose and pick the same plan. Then the Cornwalls got transferred.
Jan asked the dentist if it was just a cosmetic thing with Karen’s teeth. She didn’t need cheerleader teeth. She wouldn’t be entering beauty pageants.
The dentist pointed to the x-ray, said if it wasn’t done now, later treatment would involve breaking the jaw. Dr. Lucas basically predicted Karen’s adult life would be hell if she didn’t get braces now. And even if Jan discounted half of the jargon, it still sounded like something had to be done. Somehow.
Afterwards, in the car, Karen burst into tears. “I liked the tooth fairy better,” she wailed.
Jan reached across the seat and held her daughter, thinking, “Here we are again, crying about teeth.” Years earlier, Karen’s friend Gracie had lost a tooth and been given five bucks from the tooth fairy, leaving Karen heartbroken because she only got a dollar.
Gracie’s parents had thrown the whole tooth fairy economy out of whack, and Jan didn’t know how to explain the fundamental unfairness. What could she say? The tooth fairy loved Gracie more? Gracie was cuter? They’d negotiated a better deal?
These days, Karen knew who the Tooth Fairy was. The last tooth her little brother lost was from going over the handlebars of his bike. Chuck had come home sobbing, with a bloody mouth, a gap in his smile, and a fist clenched around a fragment of white.
Although Jan calmed him down with French fries and chicken-fried steak, she forgot to put the money under his pillow. Karen ran downstairs the next morning to tell her, and together they wrote a note explaining that the Tooth Fairy had been running late, delayed by traffic over Asia and an unexpected number of children who’d eaten taffy apples.
It was the Easter Bunny, that weirdest of holiday animals, its story so thin and its elements so odd, that led Karen to insist, “It doesn’t make sense, Mommy. Tell me the truth.” Even though Jan hadn’t wanted to, she told her daughter and the toppling of one icon brought the rest crashing down. Karen instantly understood that no Easter Bunny meant no Santa Claus, no leprechauns, and no tooth fairy. She crawled onto her mother’s lap and cried.
Sometimes, when one thing was pulled out, everything came crashing down. One fantasy. One tooth. One job. One member of the family. You had to adjust to a different world. If Jan could, she would crawl into someone’s lap right now and have a comforting cry. That’s all she wanted. Someone to be there for her. Some days, that was the best she could do as a parent. Just be there.
That sounds like enough. But you also need money for the teeth. All those teeth.
Joe Mills is a faculty member at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and holds an endowed chair, the Susan Burress Wall Distinguished Professorship in the Humanities. He has published six collections of poetry with Press 53, most recently Exit, pursued by a bear which consists of poems triggered by stage directions in Shakespeare. He edited the collection of film criticism A Century of the Marx Brothers. With his wife, Danielle Tarmey, he researched and wrote two editions of A Guide to North Carolina’s Wineries, and his essay “On Hearing My Daughter Trying to Sing Dixie” won this year’s Rose Post Creative Nonfiction Competition. More information about his work is available at www.josephrobertmills.com.
I was testifying at the hearing when I saw you sleeping.
Your meemaw beside you looked like an old tree, gnarled and bumpy from too many hard winters. The crocheted blanket that wrapped you round was two shades of pink: odd dye lots from the Dollar Salvage, and I knew just what she’d said as she bought them: “The baby won’t care if they don’t match.” And she was right. You don’t care.
The domed, painted ceiling above you is gold and blue. It looks calm and holy, the way the Sistine Chapel might look inside. Or maybe not. I’ve never been there. The only church I’ve seen is the one I was married in, and that one had a white drop ceiling. His mom picked it. It was near the Olive Garden. And even though we didn’t care about getting married I thank God every day she said what she said about custody and made us go. Thank you, Meemaw.
Because now my mama can’t take you, wherever they send me. My mama who wouldn’t quit that man, even after I told her what he did to me. She swore she was done with him, like she swore so many things, but then I came home and found him alone with you.
Things I always knew about you: that you will make it out of here alive. That you will be better than where you come from, better than all of us. Even if you’d looked like that man whose name I won’t say. I’d dream about that before, worrying I wouldn’t love you if you looked like him. It wouldn’t have mattered—I know that now—but you don’t. You’re caramel and curly. Nothing mean could ever look out of those wide brown eyes. When you dream, you dream a world where even the moon smiles down at you.
You wake, looking up at this gold-and-blue ceiling like it’s a skyful of stars, like you did that time at the carnival when I took you on the Ferris wheel, held close in my lap, and you weren’t scared at all. You looked up and waved your hands at the sky and my eyes blurred watching you, I loved you so hard, and you won’t remember that night, or me, most likely, but that was when I knew. I’d die to keep you safe. That night your face turned to rain.
Kathryn Kulpa is the author of Girls on Film, a winner of the Vella Chapbook Contest, published by Paper Nautilus. Her stories have appeared in Thrice Fiction, Reservoir, Monkeybicycle, and other journals. She leads writing workshops for teens and adults in Rhode Island and will be a visiting writer at Wheaton College in fall 2017.
I counted telephone poles and the seconds between them. The highway cut straight through the sand, and it seemed the road would never end. No curves. No hills. Just poles.
I’m not sure when she changed. After kids, I guess. She rarely smiled, joked even less. I watched her drive. Not even a blink. Just an arid stare, dry like the desert, alone like a cactus. I wanted to say something, but I knew she just wanted to drive, to hide behind the wheel, an excuse to concentrate, a reason to focus on something other than me. Maybe I had changed, too. I went back to the poles.
She once asked me to keep her young. “There’s not much I can do about aging,” I said. So she asked me to keep her youthful. “That, I can try.” And so came the days when everyone we saw became someone else. We spent hours inventing stories about people, who they were, what their lives were like. She later told me she got the idea from a Simon and Garfunkel song. “See that woman over there,” she said in a grocery store checkout line. “She’s having an affair with her tango instructor. Her husband knows it, too. But he’s sleeping with his secretary.” She looked at me, and waited for what I would say.
“Do you think they know?” I asked.
“Do you think they know her tango instructor is married to his secretary?”
She kissed me, right there in the checkout line, for a long time.
I tired of the poles and wanted to turn on the radio, but figured no stations were in reach. I also figured she’d turn it off if I found one. I wanted to talk, or break something.
I must have dozed off because I don’t remember stopping. I woke to an empty car, still running, her door open. I jumped out, looked around, and found her standing in the sand some ways away. I walked to where she was, but let her speak first. She stood in front of a cactus, prickly in bloom.
“They’re spies,” she said.
“They’re spies from another planet, sent here to watch us. See those flowers,” she said. “Those flowers aren’t really flowers.”
It was my turn. “No, they’re not. They’re communication devices used to send information back to their home planet. Information they gathered throughout the year.”
“Yes,” she said. “That’s what they are. Communication devices.”
I wanted to ask where she’d gone, but instead I kissed her for a long time.
Foster Trecost writes stories that are mostly made up. They tend to follow his attention span: sometimes short, and sometimes very short. He lives in New Orleans.