“Squash Tendril” by Jenn Rhubright.
(See also “Convalescence” by Billie Tadros.)
Leah’s grandmother washed and dried her dinner plates, stacked them in the oven and set it on broil. She hid her pearls in the toilet tank, where they coiled under a rubber flap and created a perpetual flush.
“Nine is green,” said Grandma Rose. “Four is red. Mint tastes like flashes of light.”
Leah’s parents decided it was time. They said Leah could stay with any friend she wanted. Oleander, said Leah. Helen and Leo were so busy gabbing on the phone to the social worker in Pottsdam and the Hertz people on 77th Street, they didn’t say no.
“I don’t see why you have to put her away,” said Leah, watching Helen fold tissue paper into her clothes—a winter-white sweater, because fall came early upstate, and a herringbone silk scarf. Helen hated wind in her hair.
“Leah, this is painful for me,” said Leo. He was tethered to the phone in the hall. “But it’s better than letting her die in a fire. And she can’t communicate her needs. Her mind is deteriorating.”
Grandma Rose’s mind looked like her bedroom, Leah decided. It was a wonderful room. Hair pins napped in the rumpled bed. Dark hairs from her wiglet drifted into the cold cream. Tubes of Bain du Soleil lost their caps and slid into open drawers, releasing the oily fragrance of summer into white nylon bloomers. Nor did Rose seem to register, when Leah was allowed to stay with her, that Leah smoked in the basement, riffled through her grandmother’s pocketbook and skimmed every paperback with a passionate couple on its cover.
“Why do they mix up the colors?” Grandma Rose said, peering over Leah’s shoulder at a title. “O isn’t red.” The word was “romance.”
“Red like a heart?” said Leah.
“My shayna maideleh,” her grandmother said gently. “O is as white as an onion.”
“She’ll burn down the house if she keeps baking the plates,” said Leo, gently.
“Maybe that’s how she wants to go,” said Leah. “Maybe the flames will talk to her.”
Her father took his palm off the receiver and said, “Do we need a lawyer for that?”
“I wish I heard colors,” Leah said. “I bet purple sounds like Joan Baez.” She tapped the suitcase, three left and three right. But her parents kept getting ready to drive off and kidnap her grandmother. Oleander, when Leah telephoned, said sure.
“Don’t you have to ask your mom?”
“Ask what?” said Oly. “Just bring your stuff. You won’t believe what’s going on here.”
The night roof was alive. It ticked and crackled. Ventilation fans flashed in their cages.
“This is where we’re gonna do it,” said Pansy. She hugged a damp Sloan’s grocery bag containing a towel, two joints, and a rubber stolen from their father’s room.
Ten stories below the night roof, the brakes of buses sang. Leah wondered if she could make herself jump off a parapet. Then she couldn’t stop wondering. Fly or die, fly or die. It was like standing in the bathtub and wondering should she touch the switch. Some thoughts she couldn’t control when they cycled through her brain. Mrs. Prideau, who was Pansy and Oly’s mother, did not have this problem. When they left the apartment Mrs. Prideau was standing in the kitchen, spooning ice cream out of the Schraft’s box and writing on some typed papers in red pencil and ignoring the most amazing things. She ignored the leak under the sink that was wetting the grocery bags. She ignored the paint hanging from the ceiling like notepaper. She ignored that Oly and Leah threw eggs from the windows sometimes, or that Mr. Prideau slept by himself in the second bedroom because it was cheaper than divorce.
“Going to howl at the moon?” she said. “Don’t fall off.” God, Leah loved Mrs. Prideau.
Standing pipes, tall as people, stuck straight up from the tarpaper. Leah tried to act casual in the face of the enemy. She edged closer to Oleander. “I bet those pipes move when we’re not looking,” she said, knowing it sounded crazy. “I bet they’re like the roof police.” She was tapping like crazy, fingers jammed in her pockets so no one could see.
Oleander fixed it. She touched each pipe, calling PLP— Public Leaning Post. Meanwhile, Pansy started up the ladder to the water tower, which stuck up high above the roof. This was worse than the roof police. The water tower had no windows. It had no mercy. Leah imagined falling in, grasping at walls all slimy below the waterline.
Fly or die, fly or die, she whispered, while Pansy Prideau crammed the Sloan’s bag between the ladder and the curving base of the tower.
Pansy climbed down again, flipping her hair. “No one’s gonna notice that,” she said.
Leah, enraptured, remembered how Pansy slept on her stomach because she rolled her hair around Minute Maid cans. She watched Pansy look down over a parapet at the singing buses. A plane blinked through the black sky toward her ear. It disappeared into her head, then eased out the other side, propelling through waves of her Minute Maid hair.
That’s when Leah inhaled—worshiped the night roof, remembered to breathe.
Saturday morning the milk smelled bad, so they got to eat Trix from the box. Then they went stealing. Leah palmed a Chunky at Manny’s Fountain on Broadway just to feel it nest in her hand, silvery and square. At Ahmed’s Candy & Cigarette, Oleander slid a comic down the back of her jeans. Then she trashed it down the block. “No one reads Archie,” she said. Leah kept her hands out of the garbage. She liked to admire Veronica’s bust, but she knew not to say it.
Leah and Oly, they were magnetic. Sweet things clung to them. When they stole, they had secrets, and when they had secrets, they shone.
They ducked under the turnstiles on 86th and changed subways twice and did Lord & Taylor’s, where they tried on five brassieres each. Leah put back four and Oleander put back three. Then back down the clacky wood escalators to the main floor, where Oly stole the White Shoulders eau de toilette tester without even smelling it, just vacuumed it into her purse.
“You ditz,” said Leah. “My grandmother wears that.” Then she browsed at Christian Dior, smiled at the lady and stole the Diorissimo tester. She didn’t smell it first because she knew it from the heartbeat of her mother’s wrist.
Leah’s mother knew all about department stores. She dispensed strange and dangerous facts. She said department stores had lady guards who pretended to shop. They lingered over gloves or garters, but were actually spies. “They watch your hands, and they look for women who glance around,” Helen said. “At night they check the ladies’ rooms, so no one sleeps over on those lovely chaises longues.” Helen was eating again, twelve hundred calories a day, and she worked for a decorator, ordering fabrics and sketching drapes. At night she studied pictures of French chairs.
“Don’t glance,” Leah warned. Oly had stopped at wallets.
But Oly couldn’t help it. What Leah did was, she listened with her skin. Leah’s skin was electric and it knew when she was invisible, and that’s when she made things disappear. Then she tapped on the counter or in her pockets or even on the floor, as if she’d dropped a safety pin. Three left, three right. It made her safe, plus it was some- thing she had to do.
The girls burst out of the same glass slot in the Lord & Taylor’s revolving door. They walked fast with our heads down, except Oly kept glancing back.
“Holy Mary mother of God pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death Amen,” she said. Her eyes were like penlights.
“When can I throw up?” said Leah. Because that’s what stealing made her want to do, after.
“In the park,” said Oleander fiercely. “Puke in the park.”
In Central Park Leah threw up behind a bush and spit nine times, three times three, to clean her mouth. They bought Creamsicles and walked to Oly’s apartment, except on the way they did the Grab Bag on Broadway, where the clothes were all burlap and ribbon and lace— artistic, Helen said. Under glass, silver earrings lay on black velvet and tarnished in their sleep. On the counter, beaded earrings dangled from a rack; you could strum them with a finger.
“Steal me,” they whispered.
Things spoke to Leah often. She did what they said.
Saturday evening no one said a word about dinner. Mrs. Prideau sat on her bed and turned her manuscript pages and watched Pansy get ready, as if this was what daughters were supposed to do, go out with boys. Sometimes all Mrs. Prideau said about dinner was “Oh, just forage,” and Leah hoped she would say this soon so they could eat more Trix.
Pansy leaned over the bathroom sink, dabbed blue shadow on each eyelid and stared at herself in the mirror. She had a face like a Madame Alexander doll, the expensive kind in glass cabinets at FAO Schwartz. She looked like a cross between seven and seventeen. Leah watched her from the doorway, hoping to learn something. What she learned was how to put on blush. First you grin. Then you rub lipstick on the part of your cheek that sticks out like a cherry tomato.
Oleander opened bureau drawers and slammed them, pulling out tops and shoving them back in. No one at Oly’s had private drawers or private shirts or even private beds, because Mrs. Prideau and Oly and Pansy shared two beds in the one big bedroom and didn’t have space for private anything. Sometimes this made Leah so jealous she could die and sometimes it made her want to go home and straighten her desk. A bandanna halter came out with a froth of socks and Oly put it on and went in the bathroom and sprayed a cloud of Right Guard around her armpits.
“Oh, good, deodorize the toothbrushes,” said Pansy, fanning at the cloud.
“Any toothbrush of yours it’s automatic B.O.,” said Oleander, and sat the can on the sink, where Leah knew it would mark the porcelain with a ring of rust.
“Any toothbrush of yours it’s automatic pus,” said Pansy.
“Oh, shit, here they go,” said Mrs. Prideau, and looked at Leah like they might actually share some sliver of understanding. She lit a clean cigarette with the old one and jabbed the old one out. The butts in her ashtray were all kissed red at one end and bent jagged at the other.
“Your parents go anyplace fun?”
“Upstate,” said Leah. “They’re kidnapping my grandmother.”
Mrs. Prideau’s eyebrows lifted into question marks, thin and elegant. “Are they taking her anyplace fun?”
“Old folks’ home,” said Leah. “Her mind is deteriorating.”
“Really.” Mrs. Prideau looked at Leah like she was trying to figure out where to insert a key. “How can they tell?”
Leah shrugged, but Mrs. Prideau kept waiting. “She sticks plates in the oven and they melt. She’s going to burn down the house.”
“She might,” said Mrs. Prideau. “If she has dementia, your parents are probably doing the right thing.”
“Plus,” said Leah, “she sees things. She says nine is green, vowels are white, stuff like that.” She hated the way she sounded, as if Rose were someone else’s crazy grandmother.
Mrs. Prideau sat straight up and looked at Leah. “Well,” she said, “I don’t know about the vowels. A is light pink and E is almost scarlet. But nine is definitely green.”
Mrs. Prideau was not beautiful like Helen. She had short spiky hair and she wore black turtlenecks and jeans. She had ink on her hands instead of nail polish. But there was some kind of light that went on inside her, and at that moment Leah thought if she stood very still, the light might shine on something she needed to see.
“Not all vowels,” Leah said carefully. “She said O and I were white like an onion. I thought it was because they’re in the word onion.”
“No, it’s because they’re white,” said Mrs. Prideau. “I also see Q and X as white, but you don’t run into that as often.”
Leah didn’t move. Tap now, her brain instructed, but for the first time in her life she disobeyed.
“It’s called synesthesia,” said Mrs. Prideau. “It runs in families, but it missed my daughters. You too?”
Leah shut her eyes and concentrated. She wanted Mrs. Prideau’s voice to reveal a shape, a scent. She thought it might smell like Diorissimo, or float like a string of pearls.
“It missed me,” she said.
Pansy walked out of the bathroom with frosted white lips. She looked perfect. Leah wanted to lay her down flat to see if her eyelids would glide shut. “Tell her what her name tastes like, Mom,” she said. “Mine tastes like tea biscuits.”
“Very thin biscuits,” said Mrs. Prideau. “Leah tastes like cucumber.”
“It could be worse,” Pansy said. She spotted Leah’s shoplifted earrings on the bureau, threaded one into her ear. “We had a babysitter once named Renee whose name tasted like pennies.”
“Syn, together, aisthesis, perception,” said Mrs. Prideau, not even flicking her eyes toward Pansy, who was taking one of her cigarettes. “It means the senses work in pairs. It’s a gift. Synesthetes are often artists,” she said. “Scriabin had it. Kandinsky, though he may have been faking. Nabokov. Is your grandmother creative?
“No,” said Leah, who had no idea what she was talking about.
“I bet she is,” said Mrs. Prideau. “Kandinsky said synesthetes are like fine violins that vibrated in all their parts when the bow touched them.”
The doorbuzzer made its jagged rasp. “Oh my God,” said Pansy, “it’s Robbie,” and she left the cigarette burning on the bureau, a fringe of ash hanging over the edge. Oleander glanced at her mother, whose lap was spread with red-penciled pages, picked the cigarette up and brought it to her lips. Leah couldn’t believe what she was seeing. Her parents would have a coronary.
“We are the bows from which our children as living arrows are sent forth,’“ said Mrs. Prideau. She looked at her younger daughter with the cigarette and closed her eyes, as if she were searching for something deeply internal.
“Kahlil Gibran,” she said, opening her eyes and, as Leah wondered if she would ever understand, “Don’t be discouraged, Leah. We never know what we inherit.”
They watched her.
They hid behind the elevator shed and watched her on the roof.
He did everything exactly in order, first base, second base, third base, home. Leah liked it, liked the way his hands traveled on Pansy and the way Pansy let her body be a highway for them. He pulled her jeans off. There wasn’t any underwear. This was a revelation, that a person could not wear underwear. They saw his hands move where his fly was and then he pushed onto her and Pansy made a sound like she had stepped on a piece of glass, and he put his hand over her mouth. When he took it away he kissed her. Then he pushed some more. This got boring, but Oleander kept saying “Jesus” under her breath, so Leah just hung back a few minutes and didn’t look, and thought about what it was that they might have inherited, she and Oleander and even Pansy, who was fifteen and barely spoke to them.
The boy pulled up his jeans. He lit a joint and Pansy took it from him. The roof police didn’t do a damn thing. They just stood there.
They were just pipes.
“Was that home?” said Leah.
“Yeah,” said Oleander, “Jesus,” and they were breathing words more than talking them. They carried their sandals so they wouldn’t scuff and moved toward the stairwell cautiously, as if stepping over puddles.
“It hurts,” said Leah, amazed.
“Only when you lose it,” said Oleander, and Leah felt a rose open in her body, felt a release as its petals fell open and flew apart, and she wondered what she had lost, and why it did not hurt.
Dylan Landis is the author of Normal People Don’t Live Like This, a novel-in-stories that made Newsday‘s Ten Best Books of 2009. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Norman Mailer Center, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She is working on a novel.
Read our interview with Dylan Landis here.
“Rose” by Dylan Landis, excerpted from Normal People Don’t Live Like This, copyright (c) 2009 by Dylan Landis, reprinted here by permission of the publisher, Persea Books, Inc., New York. All rights are reserved.