It wasn’t the first time I’d met a cliché, so I wasn’t surprised when she walked up and introduced herself. I was in a nice, clean, pretentious bar in Hollywood, but there’s no escaping phonies anywhere in that town, and I had her figured for a phony before she even opened her mouth. What would you have thought? The slinky white satin gown that caressed her breasts and thighs as she walked, the skin that looked smoother than skin ever is in our sunbeat part of the world, the brassy hair that even bobbed over one eye–a style that had been out-of-date in my father’s time…. Right down to the martini glass carefully balanced in one hand as she sashayed through the crowd. The crowd didn’t pay much attention to her—a couple of glances from the straight guys, mostly the older ones. It was Hollywood; they were used to good-looking phonies. The town offered them in wholesale lots. If some woman had come in looking like an honest female human, they would have stared her down, or maybe just turned away to slouch into their drinks while they thought up a better way to cheat their barmates. I looked her up and down myself because she was, after all, good-looking, though I wasn’t sure how good she’d look without the satin and pancake and heels. Probably an ordinary girl, freckles, dry hair, tired eyes. She came here to play the script she’d written in her own head. That’s what they were all doing here.
All except me. Not because I’m so fucking self-righteous or anything, but because it wasn’t my choice to be here. I had to meet someone, and the Harbor Bar, which was a good thirty-something miles from the actual harbor as the crow flies, was where they said to meet. It wasn’t my kind of place: I’m a wine-drinker and I like restaurants with decent food. So I sipped my twelve-dollar glass of four-dollar wine, which the barkeep had handed me with a look of pitying boredom, and checked out the slinky girl while I waited for my appointment.
She homed in on me like one of those guided missiles that follows the laser dot. I was surprised. If she wasn’t the normal human female type, I was definitely the normal human male type. Unremarkable by design. Nice clothes but dull colors, a haircut you could get anywhere in the world, cheap comfortable shoes. My own private-label brand of rebellion, and I suppose it worked too well. I stood out by not trying to stand out. Maybe I even did it on purpose, although I’m saying that just to cover my bases. I don’t like to be noticed, even by good-looking girls who are trying so hard to be slinky—and in this case succeeding. Being noticed brings annoyance, and sometimes trouble. Losers who want to tell you their life story and convince you to invest in their inevitable future fame. Or just plain con men. So my first thought was that she took me for some sort of lonely square she could scam out of something and maybe not even have to go to bed with him. I tell you, living in Hollywood makes you cynical. That’s why I just used the word “square,” which is out-of-date even among actual squares. I want no part of it. Not even the slang. But there she was, a minor nightmare in white satin, locking her eyes on mine. She slalomed up to me, dropped her eyelids dramatically, and said my name, with a polite question mark at the end. I kept a few incipient swear words from adding to the din of the bar. She was the fucking client.
“Yeah, that’s me. Larry F. Sanders. I take it you’re Holly Johnson.”
“Holly F. Johnson.” She smiled, and I wasn’t sure, but it looked like a real smile, not a scripted one.
“Well, I should’ve known,” I said. “You hold the drink like it’s a…microphone.”
She laughed then. “I was afraid you were about to say something crude.”
“We don’t know each other that well yet. Is there a place in this joint where we can talk without projecting? You might be good at that but I haven’t sung since I broke my momma’s heart by dropping out of after-school chorus. And it was no loss to music, I tell you.”
“Follow me,” she said, and slalomed away. I did as I’d been told. It was definitely pleasant to keep an eye on her as she led the way. I’m sure she knew it too.
There was a booth in the back where some of the din was absorbed by the red vinyl tuck-and-roll on the walls. A cute little padded cell with a table for four, or two if you included their egos. She slid into place like she’d been machined to fit, and I blundered in with my usual lack of grace, which I am always at pains not to hide in places like that. There was a battery-powered votive candle on the formica tabletop; it even flickered a little, like it was about to fade out. But no such luck. She placed her martini glass on the table and picked up the candle, smiling. “Classy, huh?” she said. I nodded and took a sip of the wine. Someone bulky lumbered by in the shadows, headed down the red-lit hallway to the rest room. “Not the best table,” she said. “But the quietest.”
“Always be grateful for small favors,” I said.
“Because that’s the most you’ll usually get,” she answered.
We automatically raised our glasses and clinked them over the electric candle. I couldn’t help reflecting her smile. This might not be so bad after all.
“So,” she said, “your mother wanted you to be a singer?”
“Hardly. She wanted me out of her hair for an extra couple of hours twice a week. Listen, the choirmaster was happy when I left. At least he didn’t try too hard to convince me I ought to stay.”
“Well, you’re still in something creative. Designing websites is creative.”
“I just fell into it. It was what was happening when I needed an income, and I got in early when it was easy to learn. Now I want out. With the damn smartphones and all, there’s no point in making a good design, since it all ends up stacked like shoeboxes on those little screens anyway.”
“But you agreed to meet me about doing mine….”
“I want out, but I still got rent to pay. And I’m still good enough to get by.”
“So am I. I started singing as a kid, but I didn’t really dedicate myself to it till I was a little too old to hit the peak. Meaning I was twenty before I took myself seriously. I’ll never be great,” she said, “but I’m good. And I’m brassy enough that I want the world to know it.” She took a sip of her drink. “Eventually I realized I’m happiest when I’m in front of a band, singing obsolete jazz songs. And the only way I can afford the time it takes to do that is to get paid for it. So I’m ready for a website to help that happen.”
“I’m surprised you haven’t had one before. I checked you out online, of course. That doesn’t bother you, does it?”
She emitted a theatrical sigh. “Hey, I’m looking for attention, right? That’s why I called you? Yes, I did have one, but I was still using my ex’s name then. It was one of those cheap ones where you fill in the blanks, you know? No one visited except my friends, who didn’t need to. They came to my gigs anyway. So, the usual story…I dumped him, and I tried to dump the website, but it’s still up there somewhere. Not that anyone notices or cares. Except maybe the ex, who’s still kinda carrying the torch.”
“I can take care of that for you, if it bothers you.”
“The website, or the ex?”
I had to laugh at that one. “Just the website, Holly. I’m a good boy. I mean, I definitely know how you feel about exes and all, but that’s not my line of work.”
She looked at me over the rim of her glass, lowered lids et cetera, the sexy-threatening shtick, marred a little by clumps of mascara. It was a good effect, but it would only work in close-up. “I guess you really didn’t need to know that,” she said. “But now you do. So are you married, Mr. Larry F. Sanders?”
“Frequently, but not presently,” I said. It was a good line, and it was also true. I’m a sucker for the love-nest scenario, which never ends happily ever after. Anyway, it cracked her up; she laughed a good loud laugh, loud enough that the phonies at the other tables turned their heads to look. I saw the crinkles at the corners of her eyes when she laughed. It didn’t look like the pancake was as thick as I’d figured. Maybe that was a good sign. Maybe it meant I still had a lot to learn. I’d always been a willing student.
“Now let me ask you a question, which might seem a little out of line. Why the slinky dish getup to meet a website designer at a bar while the sun’s still up? Are you, like, onstage 24/7?”
“Far from it. I’ve got a gig in Santa Barbara tonight, a place so small they don’t have dressing rooms. I’m past the days when I was so desperate I’d change in a toilet stall. And it’s a two-hour drive when the traffic’s good, which it never is in LA. So you see, I’m not so bad after all. It’s just that you’ve got to look the part, you know.”
“I know. It’s all part of the sales pitch.”
She looked a little miffed. “It’s all part of the show. People want their illusions just so. Believe me, this isn’t Holly Johnson in her daily life.” She ran her hands up and down her waist to illustrate. I thought that was unfair. She smiled one of the triumphant little smiles that women have. “But you like this Holly Johnson, don’t you?”
“Goes without saying. But there’s no cuteness discount.” This was the big test, and she passed it by laughing instead of frowning. “But,” I said, “would you dare to put the 7AM Holly Johnson on your website? You know, to show the human side of the icon. Or should it be album-cover style all the way? And I know I’m showing my age by talking about album covers.”
“Hey, I’ve got vinyl at home. It’s almost a bylaw of the jazz world. But let me think on it. It’s not that the 7AM Holly Johnson is a Medusa or anything like that, but…shit, you know this business is a hard sell, Mr. Larry F. Johnson. I need you to make me look like someone they’ll feel they ought to have heard about, y’know? Like they’ve been missing the boat. And icons aren’t supposed to have a human side.”
We talked business a little bit, but we got sidetracked into a long discourse on the music itself. It was good; I had to know how she felt about what she did, and she had to know how I felt about the One Big Thing in her life, but it took up too much time and two more drinks for me, just one for her. Finally Holly looked at the skinny silver watch on her wrist and said, “You know, Mr. Larry F. Johnson, I’ve got to go. Where’s your car? In the lot here?”
“I didn’t drive. I live about half a mile away. Why?”
“Come up to Santa Barbara with me. We can talk business—real business—on that long damn drive. And you can see me on stage. The drinks’ll be on me. Or on the house, if the crowd is good. I’ve played there before. I’ve got my camera in the car, and you can take some pictures if you want. Assuming we come to terms.”
I nodded. “I’m sure we will, Ms. Holly F. Johnson. I’m sure we will.”
She waved at the waiter to settle the bill. I offered to cover it—it was a deductible expense—but she insisted on taking the deduction for herself. Yeah, she was the lady, but she was also the client. What do the phonies always say when they’re about to cheat you? “Business is business.” Well, no one was cheating anyone here. We just accepted the complications of life. I did give her my hand to help her out of the booth. Her hand was nice and warm. My momma would have been proud.
“Follow me,” she said. She began to slink out of the bar, parting the waters of phonies, on her way, with my help, to the promised land. I followed her. It wasn’t too hard to do.
Richard Risemberg was born into a Jewish-Italian household in Argentina, and brought to Los Angeles to escape the fascist regime of his homeland.He has lived there since, except for a digression to Paris in the turbulent Eighties.He attended Pepperdine University on a scholarship won in a writing competition, but left in his last year to work in jobs from gritty to glitzy, starting at a motorcycle shop and progressing through offices, retail, an independent design and manufacturing business, and most recently a stint managing an adult literacy program at a library branch in one of the poorest neighborhoods of the city. All has become source material for his writing. He has pursued journalism, photography, and editorial writing, which, combined with his years in motorcycle culture, introduced him to the darker side of the dream. His fiction concentrates on working-class life, homelessness, and cultures of violence, and the indifference of the Dominant Culture to it all.Continue reading →
I have a fish in a glass jar. She lives beside the bed on a desk with twelve pens, four chapsticks, three books with no pictures, and one baseball card that belongs in the old cigar box next to it. The card isn’t in the cigar box because the jar is sitting on the lid and I have discovered the fish does not like to be moved. It is a very small desk entrusted with holding very many things. It has three drawers, but they are already full and I am not supposed to use them. I think the fish is asleep now. I can tell she’s not dead.
I wish I had a bird or a monkey. I know if I were a pirate I’d want a monkey instead of a parrot. I don’t understand why more people can’t answer that question.
What I want an answer to is why alcoholics are the only ones awarded a special chip when they’re a year out. All I have is the fish who it is my responsibility to keep alive, which I guess might be called ironic.
I’m trying to read Ivanhoe but all I’m managing to do is drink my beer. It’s not an hour for reading or drinking but it’s been a year since my body has treated the nighttime as anything with rules. I wonder why on the page the heart is said to be something so much more fragile than the skin when in life that doesn’t seem at all true.
The tracks beneath my wristwatch illustrate this truth. I drew them to prove I was hurting even if it wasn’t my heart, as everyone supposed. I was supposed to feel something, so I made every effort to make sure I did.
My beer’s warm. It goes down easier that way, but it doesn’t taste any better. The movies say it’s supposed to help, though really Hollywood recommends something stronger.
The knights, in Ivanhoe I mean, seem to get along with wine. I save wine for desperation because it does, sometimes, help me sleep. And I know sleeping is important. And, like hearts, is supposed to be much simpler and more easily understood. But wine is also more expensive.
I can hear the jingling of my gimpy dog in the silence of my parent’s house, all hops and skips with a cast on his back right leg. I’m not the only one awake. He knows where I am, on the pullout in the basement and I want to remind him to stay away from the stairs, but some people are actually asleep and, despite my reminders, neither he nor anyone else seems to listen.
I’m not fully responsible for keeping the dog alive, that’s a shared custody situation with my parents. The fish on the other hand, I don’t know that anyone else even remembers she’s down here with me. Which all sounds exactly like something I would have said at sixteen, and I don’t know if it’s lucky that, this far away from sixteen, I still sound the same and, once again, live in my parents’ house. Stories like this are written for and about teenagers, no one writes them for people like me who are much closer to thirty than we are to high school.
At thirty you’re supposed to be able to handle this. You’re supposed to be able to handle most things. All those young adult novels were supposed to prepare you. But there are only so many situations you can prepare for and none of them are targeted at alleviating particularly poor brain chemistry. That’s what the meds are for, to make any preparation remotely possible.
But everything that was possible then isn’t possible now. Marriage, kids, milestones. All I can accomplish now is feeding the fish, getting out of bed, and not cutting. That’s the point. That’s all anyone’s asked of me in awhile. And it’s still been hard. But those aren’t the sort of accomplishments you Instagram about or talk up at a reunion. Apparently they’re not even the sorts of accomplishments they give chips for.
There’s no graduation, or cards with checks enclosed. There’s no cake or even celebratory phone calls. Maybe I’m the only one who remembers the date. And just like the act itself I have to do this on my own, celebrate and congratulate myself with a drink and a pat on the back. And maybe part of being closer to thirty than sixteen is being okay with celebrating yourself by yourself.
I hear a burble and know the fish is awake. It’s impossible to have a regular sleep schedule when you live in the basement and only get light when someone feels like reading or lying awake. She blows bubbles at the surface of her jar sometimes. The Internet says this means she’s happy and basically marking her territory.
“Hey,” I say. “You awake? You happy?”
Her fin flutters.
“L3,” I say. Named her after a Star Wars droid. It seemed appropriate for a fish. Part of this world but part of its own world too.
She blows another bubble and then swims in a circle.
“Are you bored?”
She shakes her head.
“You could live outside the jar for a little while as long as you stayed wet.”
“But it wouldn’t be very comfortable.”
That’s probably true. She’s just alive, and she’s cool with it. She doesn’t like to move so I make sure she doesn’t have to. She’s even cool with the insomnia. But I guess the fish doesn’t have to get up for work in the morning.
Which I do now. And always did. Never expected a special lunch or anything at the office because I never told anyone there. Never gave them a reason to suspect. Because, like AA, this is supposed to be anonymous. You don’t get a branded sweatshirt or framed photo for surviving. You just do. But here you don’t get a sponsor or a mentor either. I’m trying to decide if I care. Maybe I’m making this all into a bigger thing than it is, now. It was big then, but not now. So why celebrate something small? I guess I should ask everyone at AA. But I don’t go to AA. I don’t have a problem that is quite that defined. I mean, it’s defined. It comes with a name, and doctors, and prescriptions, but no one has ever celebrated it as a group activity. I’m no hero. So I guess that’s why we don’t celebrate. But I guess there are heroes in this story too. Which is why, while reading Ivanhoe and drinking, unlike L3, I will get up in the morning. Because there’s a little boy in my class. He’s four years old and both of our favorite color is green, which is how I always know where he will sit on the carpet with the star in the center and the letters around the edge. The S is the green we both like.
And I can’t imagine being four and having my teacher kill herself, or at least die as I’m sure they’d spare my class any gory details, as well as the gory falsehoods, like it was a broken heart that did it. And he would probably only ever remember how he felt rather than what happened. He’d remember where he was sitting when he found out, on that green S that is both of our favorite color. He would understand I wasn’t coming back probably because I drew a picture of Batman for him last week, who we both also love, and he wouldn’t be able to love Batman anymore. And maybe he loves me as much as he loves Batman. Which is why I keep getting up. And why I keep L3 alive.
And it has been a year after all. A year of living with my parents, and drinking through my insomnia, though Ivanhoe is new. And it has also been a year of someone who is happy to see me everyday, even though he’s four, and not at all what the movies train you to expect. And that has to be okay too. Because there are no stories about me. There are no stories where you try to kill yourself in your twenties, and you don’t, and there’s no institutionalization, just changing your meds and moving in with your parents. There’s no story where you attempt suicide not because your heart is broken but because you think you don’t even have one to break. There’s no action or heroes or villains really. There’s no group therapy, or sobriety chips. There’s just me keeping the fish alive, because who else can? And maybe this is the story no one else has written, even though I know this has happened before. And will happen again. Though not exactly like this.
There are no calls, or cards, or presents, or parties. But tomorrow morning I’ll get up with bags under my eyes and walk into work and get a hug.
There’s a knock on my door. I freeze and hear L3 burble. I can feel my heart in my throat and my wrists and I know my new anxiety is still more pronounced than the depression of three hundred and sixty five days ago. I strain to hear if it’s the dog or someone else. What’s out there now? At this time? What’s supposed to be?
Jessie Atkin writes fiction, poetry, essays, and plays. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, The YA Review Network, Writers Resist, Cloudbank, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in creative writing from American University. She can be found online at jessieatkin.comContinue reading →
Hazel helped her husband Bill into his suit coat, leveling the shoulders with heavy hands. With her face turned from him, she slid his silver cigarette case into the breast pocket. Her eyes, the color of fresh mud he’d once told her, were weak. She feared they’d tear up or glaze over—they’d expose her.
“Now don’t you spend all day fiddling around with those snowball bushes,” Bill said. “I need you to have the basement ready for the O’Dells to come by and look at. They’re coming first thing tomorrow morning. Remember, I have to visit the bank to sign the rest of the papers for the house, then the insurance agency, and then back to the office.”
Hazel nodded and offered her right cheek to Bill for a kiss, which he failed to notice. He’d occupied himself with verifying the location of his cigarette case, wallet, and car key. The screen squealed as it opened to release Bill and again as it returned to its place. Hazel shut the oak door and made her way to the kitchen to clean up the breakfast dishes.
It was day three in the new house. After five years of living in White’s boarding house, Bill had saved enough money to put a down payment on a two-story home. He had a nice office job at the furniture company that had opened several years ago, and Hazel had contributed a little money to their cause by selling her needlepoint pillows at church bazaars. She was quite talented at stitching birds. She blushed when the ladies told her they could hear sad coos released from her mourning doves.
Bill had decided to take in boarders since the new house had a full basement. With the added income, he could pay off the mortgage earlier. Hazel liked the idea of giving a young couple the option of living somewhere besides Mrs. White’s boarding house, which really was just a single-story box filled to the brim with whining cats. Earlier that morning while preparing the coffee, Hazel believed she’d seen the fat calico jump from the potato bin onto the kitchen counter, yet when she turned around, the cat was not there.
The basement was large enough for a kitchenette and a bathroom, and Bill had a plumber coming next week to help set everything up. In the meantime, he’d instructed Hazel to tidy things downstairs as best as she could. There was a wrought-iron bed already in place. All Hazel needed to do was wipe the dust off of it and put on a set of sheets and a quilt. She was supposed to move their night table downstairs, too, since Bill was getting a new one for them at a good price through his company. She was to wash the basement’s windows, both inside and outside, as well. The window washing had been her idea. She wanted the O’Dells to notice how the sunlight would brighten up the whole basement. Somehow, it made the concrete walls look pretty.
Hazel placed her dishtowel over the sink and walked into the living room. It was almost time for her favorite soap opera, “Our Gal Sunday.” If she turned the volume all the way to the right, she would just be able to hear it while she worked in the basement.
Yes, folks I said Anacin. That is spelled A-N-A-C-I-N. You will be delighted with the results.
The radio had been a wedding gift from her brothers and sisters. All eight had chipped in, some more than others she was certain, to buy the newlyweds the radio. When it was delivered to the boarding house, Mrs. White allowed the men to set it in her kitchen. The noise would be a bother, she said, but she would just suffer it so the couple wouldn’t find themselves even more cramped in their bedroom. After about a month, Hazel told Bill the only time she got to choose a radio program was when Mrs. White took her bath on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Bill didn’t seem to care. He’d said the radio was a nuisance and an impractical gift for a young couple with no home of their own and no money to speak of.
Practicality all the way. That was Bill Morris. Nothing was ever bought on time payments, except for the new house, the realization of which was wearing him thin, home from the office for dinner at noon, and supper, always with cornbread on the side, at six-thirty. Everything he did at every moment had to have a reason behind it, some purpose to be done, or it wasn’t worth his while. There’d been a peak of this practicality in the last few months, and especially the last few days. He’d taken on a mortgage and much of the renovations for the basement apartment, combined with his regular work at the office, so there never seemed to be just the right time for Hazel to tell Bill the news—she was expecting.
Hazel was clearing the photograph frames from her night table when the doorbell rang. She evaluated herself in the mirror. Dressed only in a striped housecoat with a slip underneath, but her hair was washed and pinned and her face was clean. Her brown eyes, bright and wide. She was presentable, enough, for whomever was at the door, probably a salesman pledging to make her life easier with the touch of one button.
The doorbell chimed through the house, again. Hazel walked faster. “Coming, coming,” she called. As she made a detour into the living room to turn off the radio, she heard the announcer:
Can this girl from the little mining town in the West find happiness as the wife of a wealthy and titled Englishman?
Somehow, she always does, Hazel thought before rotating the dial.
“I could hear the radio on the porch,” Iris said as she stepped into the house. Iris was married to James, Hazel’s brother. She was a petite woman with fine clothes, but her presence was sour and her voice curt.
“I like having it on, and I like it loud. It drowns out everything else,” Hazel said, ushering Iris into the living room.
“No doubt you were listening to those absurd soap operas with their fickle men and moaning women.”
“Never mind them,” Hazel said, offering Iris a chocolate from the candy dish. “What brings you by?”
“James. It was his idea I drop in to see how you were feeling,” Iris said, declining the treat with a wave of her hand. “You were looking worse for wear the other day, but you seem all well now. Not a trace of a cold.” Iris lowered her thin eyebrows, glaring at Hazel.
Hazel had asked Iris to drive her to Dr. Price’s office the day before yesterday. Bill had told her she looked a bit peaked, and she’d better get to the doctor’s before she got worse. They had too much to get done this week. Besides, he couldn’t afford to get sick and have to stay home from work.
Iris pulled into the driveway promptly at 9:30 AM. Hazel’s appointment wasn’t scheduled for another hour, and it only took about twenty minutes to drive into town, but Iris was a cautious driver to say the least. Every now and again Hazel would accompany Iris to purchase weekly groceries, and while Hazel was certainly thankful for the ride, she did wish Iris would drive a bit faster. When Hazel dared ask her about her driving style once, Iris replied, “Well, at least I know how to drive,” and then she added her customary statement, “When you rush, you risk.”
When they arrived at Dr. Price’s office, Iris said she would be quite comfortable waiting in the car while Hazel received her diagnosis. She didn’t want to catch anything that was catching. She’d driven the entire time with her scarf draped over her mouth and nose.
No, it wasn’t a cold or the beginning of a bout with pneumonia. Hazel, at thirty-five, was expecting her first child. Dr. Price had just lit his second cigarette when he delivered the news. He determined she was a couple of months along. She was an otherwise healthy gal, and she should have Bill lower the clothesline for her before the next load was hung. Hazel tried to listen to his instructions, but her mind was elsewhere. How had she missed it? Well, her cycles were often irregular. With five years of marriage and no children to speak of, she’d thought having children to be impossible. Now, with the move and the new house and preparing for live-ins, she just failed to notice. Bill wouldn’t be satisfied this was the best time, especially since they’d gone so long without children.
It would’ve been natural for Hazel to begin thinking about her own mother at this moment, but she didn’t. Her mother had nine children and no husband to speak of, not the traditional kind. He provided only sadness and aggravation for his wife and children. He dropped in and out of all of their lives as it suited him. Sometimes he’d stay for two days, other times a week or so. It seemed like as soon as he left another child came along. They came one after the other. Her mother even had a set of twins—a pair of boiling pink boys Hazel bottle-fed while her mother healed. To this day, Hazel couldn’t be certain what happened to her father. Only flashes of a dark, lanky image existed in her memory. It was her mother who’d raised them, and they helped raise each other.
As Hazel walked out of the office, she decided there was no need to tell Iris. She’d be disturbed by the news in one way or another, or she’d offer nothing but advice for the entire ride home. It’d be better just to let her think she had a cold. Besides, Hazel needed the time to herself to plan how she was going to present Bill with the news.
Now Hazel had known about her condition for almost two full days. With Iris across from her, Hazel’s face flushed a convicted red. “I really do need to get back to the housework,” she said, standing, her eyes concentrated on the front door.
“Fine. Like I told you, it was James’s idea for me to come,” Iris said, brushing a piece of lint from her lap. “He’ll be relieved to see you’re recovered so quickly.”
“I’ll tell Bill you said hello,” Hazel said, half-waving to Iris in her car. As she watched Iris’s gradual turn onto the main road, she thought of Bill. When he’d gotten home from work on the day she visited the doctor, he was in a terrible mood. Something had happened to a number of important invoices at the office, and then when he stopped by the bank to sign the rest of the paperwork on the house, the bank officer had already left for the day. He stomped through the living room and turned off the radio, yelling, “You could get a lot more done if you didn’t pay so much attention to that nonsense.” He’d been so worked up he even forgot to ask her about her appointment with Dr. Price. He wasn’t himself, and she just couldn’t tell him. She’d planned to tell him last night after supper. She’d prepared some of his favorites, cubed steak with gravy, green peas, and cornbread, of course. He never tasted much of it, though, saying he had brought home some work from the office, and he wanted to work on the cabinets for the kitchen in the basement while there was still daylight left.
Tonight for sure, she thought. He’d been in an almost pleasant mood at breakfast, she’d have the basement looking nice and tidy for the O’Dells to see, and she’d tell him with a grand smile on her face. She refused to allow her own anxiety to show. She’d explain now was a good time for them to have a child because of the extra income from the boarders. Their child would also have his choice of second-hand clothing from all his cousins.
On her way back to the bedroom, Hazel switched on the radio in time to catch Sunday’s husband, Lord Henry, tell her:
You, my dear, are a caged lioness.
Indeed she is, Hazel thought. We all have that in common.
In the bedroom, she retrieved a new package of white bed linens from the closet. She placed it on top of the cleared night table, lifted the table on each side, and headed for the basement. Stopping to listen for a moment, she heard only a commercial, so she made her way down the steps.
The sheets hadn’t been pinned properly, and they unfolded into a large bulging bundle in her arms. As she began to fold them, she felt a stinging pain in her stomach; a loose pin or two must’ve caught her skin through her dress. She found the two pillowcases and began stuffing them when she felt hot liquid trickle down her inner thigh. She lifted the edge of her slip, discovering blood. She saw no sign of stains on the sheets, so she left them as they lay on the bed. With one hand, she held the bottom of her housecoat between her legs as she climbed each step with determination. She must be careful to avoid making a mess.
Hazel shuffled down the hallway into the bathroom and climbed into the empty tub. After half an hour, there were no more stomach pains, no more blood, no more anything. She took a rough washcloth to every inch of skin, scouring between her fingers. She washed her hair again, digging her fingernails into her scalp. Out of the tub, she perfumed and powdered and extracted too many eyebrows. She opened her eyes wide, gazing in the mirror as she applied a thick layer of mascara to her dry eyelashes. She pulled on a tattered bathrobe, one she kept hanging on the back of the bathroom door, and gathered her clothes, compressing the garments into a mound barely visible in her hands. With the afternoon passing and her emotions and womb dried, she needed to do the wash and get back to work in the basement. There was supper to prepare before Bill got home.
Hazel hung her clothes out on the line although it was more difficult to open the pins this time. No need to ask Bill to lower it now, she thought. When she threw her slip over, it didn’t catch but fell onto the ground. It didn’t matter anyway. She figured on throwing it out. Though she had scrubbed it over the sink with soap and cold water until her fingers burned, the stain only spread. It didn’t disappear. She had hoped she could save it. Bill’s mother had given it to her as a wedding present. It had yellowed only slightly; otherwise, it was smooth and shiny. That slip was the final garment Bill had removed on their wedding night.
She remembered how warm and ready she was when he placed his finger under the strap and slid it off of her shoulder. It had ended up on the floor that night, but now it was on the ground, stained, ruined, and waiting to be thrown away. She dropped it in the burn barrel with the coffee grounds and yesterday’s newspaper.
When Hazel heard the shrill bursts from Bill’s car horn that evening, she knew he was playing with her. She joined him by the door, her heavy chest bumping into him.
Bill stepped to the side. “Everything has been taken care of,” he said. “We’re all set for the house.” He handed her a pack of chewing gum. “Heard the jingle for it on your radio the other day,” he said. “I’m trying to woo my girl like it says.” Hazel returned his foolish grin with a half-smile and shoved the small package into her apron pocket and returned to the kitchen.
Now he was in a good mood. He whistled while he hung his coat on the rack and stumbled while removing his loafers. Hazel listened as he walked down the hall and stopped at the basement door. His sock feet thumped on the steps.
“This looks nice,” he yelled from the basement. Hazel continued peeling carrots over the sink, wiping leftover skin caught in the grater on her apron. She heard the basement door close, and Bill entered the kitchen. He moved close to her side and this time she backed away.
“I think the O’dells will like the room,” he said, snatching a peeled carrot. “They’ll like it ever better when the kitchen and bathroom are set up, but they’ll just have to use their imaginations for a while. They’re still young enough to do that.” He split the carrot with his front teeth. “I’m going to work down there this evening after supper,” he said, grinding what was left. He then took a slice of cornbread from the tin by the counter. “What are we having, tonight?” he asked between bites. “Hey, this cornbread from last night is even better today. Do we have anymore?” He turned to evaluate the contents of the tin, hoping there may be another piece, but found it empty. Hazel placed the grater in the sink, wiped her hands on her apron, and walked out of the kitchen. She sat down in the chair by the radio, which she’d turned off some time ago. She slid her feet from her slippers and stared at her toes.
“That’s all there is. There isn’t any more,” she called to him.
Kim Shegog has an MFA from Converse College and an MA in English from The College of Charleston. Her work has appeared in Appalachian Heritage, The Sun, OWL, and The Compassion Anthology. She received the 2019 Judith Siegel Pearson Fiction Award from Wayne State University. She has taught creative writing and composition courses at Coastal Carolina University. She lives in Ohio.Continue reading →