WEDNESDAY: Don’t Start Part Two

BY TRACEY LEVINE

This is the second and concluding part of a two-part story. Read the first part. Copyright is held by the author.

WHEN SEAN Kirkland walked away from me and got in his pickup truck after pecking me on the cheek and leaving me in front of the bar, and not looking back, I waited until he was pulling out of the parking lot to give him the finger. I did this to Tommy sometimes when he left a room, to his back. I started giving him the middle finger as we’d speak on the phone and when he’d talk about that girl, about how bored he was. It’s not just that girl. He stopped wanting to hold my feet with his in the morning just before we were fully conscious, just before he left. The last time we spoke, he said that everything I did was a hobby. I told him that the army was an excuse, although I had no idea what I was talking about.

Sean Kirkland plays box ball with the others and I watch them. I tell Darlene, “You know, he’s not as terrible as we think.”

Darlene parentally places her arm on my leg and I want to brush it off but instead I do the same to her, just as gently. The schoolyard erupting in front of us is even beautiful. We are unavoidably sad and quiet for what seems like no reason. And blessedly, the box balls stay within their parameters.

The rest of the school day is uneventful and then I end up on the bus next to Darlene. Carrie stays this day after school for soccer practice. There has not been a repercussion after the cubby room and I assume that Sean Kirkland has taken the event and reserved a far and vacant shelf for it somewhere inside of his head. I smile thinking this, not really knowing what such a thing means. I’m not able to stay in these thoughts as Darlene chats about popular music, how we should get a pottery wheel, and her procreating hamsters. I cannot recall whether I have hamsters still or if my mother has already removed them citing neglect. Carrie told me when I dreamily stated that they’re probably happier after my mom took them away that there aren’t any goddamn hamster farms.

I don’t say much. I look out of the bus window and realize I have no distinct recollection of Tommy’s face, nor did I have one of Darlene’s voice until I heard it that morning. Our neighborhood looks so much cleaner, so much more important now and I guess then. Darlene tells me, “I can see you married. And you’d make me wear a gigantic bridesmaid dress like a girl from an old novel.”

“Maybe. Who knows what’s going to happen. Maybe you’ll get married too.”

Darlene’s mother is separated from her second husband and Darlene likes to talk about people getting married, about soap opera weddings. I want to tell her that she won’t be right most of the time, but when I’m about to blurt this all out, Darlene has fished a teen magazine out of her purse, is leafing through it, and says, “You know, I really think that Sean Kirkland likes you. That’s why he’s such a jerk.”

I look out of the bus window again. We’re getting close to our blocks. We go through a light and sail by a strip mall where there’s a pharmacy on the end, a dry cleaner’s, some offices and a bar without any windows at the other end, McNally’s, where we go inside once a year on Halloween to get whole Hershey’s bars.

The door to McNally’s suddenly flies open as the bus slows to accommodate a work truck. I watch a man amble out, fiddling with a cigarette in one hand. He looks like my dad but my dad is at work. I don’t recognize the jacket but it’s his head and hair, I’m sure of it. A woman flies out behind him and all I can see is her familiar faux white fur jacket as she zips it up to her face that pinches a cigarette in her own lips. My dad lights Darlene’s mom’s cigarette. She inhales deeply just before she removes the cigarette from her mouth and folds into my dad until I’m sure that their faces meet and that my body feels the lightest I’ve ever known it to. The bus moves on and I look away, look to Darlene, who’s been in a magazine the whole time.

When I open the door to my house with a key — the door is always locked even if someone’s home — I’m assaulted by the smell of something boiled and heavily influenced by pork. I will never eat any food like this at 26 and this smell will remind me of tense and silent dinner tables, of the few lulling hours after school and before dinner when all I wanted was to look forward to food. I go to the kitchen to where my mom peers intimidatingly into the lidded crock-pot. She doesn’t look up when she says, “Hey you.”

I drop my schoolbag and moan, again feeling like I’m a spectator in this 12-year-old life, because the sound seemed a reflex. My mom flicks her attention at me and curtly commands, “Don’t start.”

She comes at me and places a hand to my forehead, kneels to get her face close and kisses me on the cheek. I meet her eyes and I see how much there is of her. She tells me to take off my coat and get started on my homework. I comply, but slowly, as she moves through the kitchen. I hear plate sounds, water sounds, her feet hitting the linoleum tile she put down herself. I wonder why my mom never listened to music while she did this and why my dad always did when he was rambling around the house. I want to ask her this but I can’t. She tells me my dad’s working late. I get set up at the far end of the dining room table so that she can set the other side for the three of us.

When Carrie gets home she is exhausted and late and has to join us in her soccer uniform at the table and I smell her. She glares at me as our mom runs through the generic food blessing, and I think that she knows what happened at school. We each and slowly, as not to crush my mom’s feelings, shovel the pea soup into our mouths. My mom keeps her head down. I used to think that she made this meal to torture us, but now, it doesn’t necessarily taste as bad as I remember but the texture is still alarmingly inconsistent. My face suddenly feels warm, but I keep eating, keep waiting for Carrie to spill, but she instead puts down her spoon and proudly asks, “Did you hear the joke about the toilet?”

My mom gives her a not-at-the-table look.

I respond, “No, I haven’t.”

My mom looks exhausted as she tries to smile. She will almost remarry in the future but will decide against it. He will continue to date her. Now, she is pretty but her hair has grown bushy for lack of a haircut. Her upturned eyes glow like moons as she waits.

Carrie answers, “Never mind, it’s too dirty!”

She slaps the table and laughs at herself. I smile, realizing that I’m off the hook. I wonder why Carrie thinks I’d do such a thing with Sean Kirkland, but I can see that she knows more than she lets on to. She has another one, her friend’s dad is a plumber, and she asks, “What did one toilet say to the other toilet?”

I respond with: “Flush me?”

They think this is good and laugh at me, but share a look for it may be too much for my 12-year-old self to deliver. Carrie quiets and asks about our dad. Our mom quickly tells her he’s working late and I feel like I might fall over in my chair; my body, like a simmering object, wants to move. I feel my time is limited here, and I don’t want to leave yet. I offer a joke: “I don’t have a library card, but do you mind if I check you out?”

Carrie’s laugh then is the strongest I’ve ever heard and when she’s able to, she accuses me of being drunk. I say that my boyfriend used that line on me the second time I met him. My mom questions Carrie as to how she knows what drunk looks like. My mom will never lose her paranoia. She comes to me and feels my forehead, looks like she’s really worried. I think of my dad that afternoon when he wasn’t my dad, when I wasn’t a 12-year-old, when I was sailing through space and watched a happy man with a buzz be affectionate, something I know to be a useful and somewhat enjoyable experience. I have a fever and I’m ordered to bed.

Tommy and I love the beach. Every time I think of the desert I try to not conflate all of my memories with him on beaches. I convince myself away from the water, away from the beach blanket and the surf and its crawl toward us. I see him alone in the middle of a desert and he could be a plastic figurine. The emails stopped for weeks and that is when I realized that aside from the wives I could contact, I had no way of getting in touch with him. I even started watching the news and vaguely knew that things weren’t good anywhere where he was. I hadn’t returned his last email that said that he didn’t like the way we were communicating. When I did respond it was with a few careful sentences that I put together to say that I cared, deeply, but it felt like I was bad- acting.

In my childhood bed again, I am warm and grave. I think to shut the lamp off but then my door opens and my dad creeps in on all fours. He closes in on me in my bed, hovers a hand over my face teasing a tickle, and asks, “How are you, my goldfish?”

I smirk. He is fuzzy, smells of spearmint and cigarettes. He looks into my eyes and stops there for a few moments, as if he sees the adult me in there. I will not have a close relationship with my dad in my adult life. He will languish me with minor gifts. Packages will arrive semi-occasionally containing anything from expensively framed film posters of films I watched with him as a child, expensive and expansive art books, to candy and popcorn tins. His new house with his new wife will smell of lavender so consistently that one is instantly taken to a Victorian novel. He will be perpetually the interloper there.

Hanging over the twelve-year old me, sensing something in my face, maybe in my aura, but that’s a term his future wife will familiarize him with, he kisses me quickly and tickles the pocket under my neck. It hurts like that sort of thing always does. He then retreats catching my mom at the door who looks him in the eye as he attempts to slither by, but the two of them face each other in the threshold of my door for a few rare seconds, looking into each other’s faces like the opposite of getting married. And then it’s over. My mom tells me to go to bed. Her eyes are teary. She squeezes my hand and says, “I have a joke.”

I ask, “What is it?”

She turns off the light and scampers to the door in the dark and I think that I’ll never hear it. I’m falling away from all of this I know for certain, but I see her silhouette and I want to tell her that I love her. I want my dad to be a silhouette that is threatening to melt into hers right now, again. She asks, ”What do you call a cow with no legs?”

And then I dissolve, but before I do, I faintly hear my mom say, “Ground meat.”

The next thing is an orange glow. I feel hung over. I open my eyes and the paint peelings that bend away from the ceiling in suspended curlicues assure me. I’m home. I jump up from the floor. I left the computer screen on. I go and check my email. There are no new ones from Tommy. I suddenly have the thought that maybe I haven’t fallen back but have been sent forward in time. I think to find my phone to check the date. I scan the room for it noticing how unkempt it is, how utterly violated; the smell of Styrofoam has integrated with the rotting food it holds. I stand in the middle as the sun hits me. I am that ant under focused, magnetized scrutiny. I might explode. I know I’m hung over. I remember the task to find my phone and something happens to me. I tiptoe to the bathroom, not sure why I am being so shy, and the phone is on the bathmat, flipped open and I remember.

It doesn’t matter what time it is in the day or in my life. I feel like my attic apartment should be a spaceship but there is nothing remarkable about it. I race like a puker to the window in my living room, tripping over my fake bed on the carpet that has been scrunched into caverns. After a clumsy labour, I manage to thrust the window open and the air reminds me of god. I am still sick and I suck and suck on what is in front me, my lips brushing the metal screen. This is not like the movies because there is no climax. There is no bottom. I look down. Three stories below Carrie leers up, her hand keeping the sun out of her eyes. She calls, “You’re not going to jump, are you?”

Then my dad ambles up beside her, and mumbles, “Jesus, Car, not today. Don’t start that now.”

My mom is there too. She puts an arm around Carrie. My dad inches closer to her on the other side, shoves his hands into his pockets, but makes sure that his arm touches. My family is a teardrop on the sidewalk. I had spoken to Tommy’s mother. I know this now like an indelible mark, but also like I could have spoken to anyone on the phone who said that Tommy had gone away sinking into the pink sky until he was only a flash of light anyone could have imagined. I couldn’t see his face, only Sean Kirkland’s as it was in that grade school closet after I kissed him, but this is just something I made up and will live in my mind, but even this idea wasn’t his face exactly. I would never understand what I was looking at. Tommy was dead. My mom calls up to me, “Honey, are you going to let us in?”

She is alone now on the sidewalk and she’s cut her hair. After she left my dad with each year she grows more androgynous. She’s wearing a tracksuit and, to my knowledge, my mom has never had an athletic day in her life. I hear something coming up my stairs. My dad can pick locks and this always scared Carrie, especially in high school when her bedroom became a pharmacy.

I fall to the ground on my awful carpet and I wait for them. I stare down into my hands. They are upturned. Maybe I will cry after Tommy isn’t just a pinch under my rib cage, when he becomes material again, or maybe I won’t. My body itches in the way it used to when I’d feel so light as a child, when I was growing, when my skin was something I thought about.

I hear Carrie and my dad in the hallway and I close my eyes. I hear my mom below, from the window, asking to be let in again. I am laughing inaudibly as everything sort of quiets. I am surrounded and there is no desert or moment that I want to look away from. I know that I am feeling love, but I am alone and there is nothing left but the bright and pungent sense that there really will be nothing to worry about except of course for everything else.

6 comments

  1. Wynkyn

    Quietly fierce.. This semi-sad tale of introspection itself seems to ache with the experience of pain! Thank you.

  2. Frank Sikora

    A question for the author or another reader: Why the tense shifts within the narrative (Present to Past and back to Present)? Is this a stylistic choice, and what does the accomplish? Curious. Most fiction is told in the past tense, but rules are meant to be broken. I am offering this response as a beginning discussion point.

  3. Pingback: TUESDAY: Don’t Start Part One |
  4. Jazz

    Frank, my opinion:
    Flashbacks in the hands of a good writer can draw the reader in while advancing the story. Margaret Laurence’s book “The Diviners” is an excellent example. Here we learn much more about the main characters based on several brief flashbacks to the past which clarifies their present behaviour. (I highly recommend this Canadian classic to you.)

    Unfortunately, again my opinion, in this story there was too much going back and forth, wearisome actually.

  5. Frank Sikora

    Jazz:
    I will check out your recommendation. Thanks.
    Regarding this story, I was confused by the tense shifts. I didn’t have a good sense of time and place. Fiction by its definition is a story told in remembrance. Present tense as used in this story grew wearisome and pretentious, which is too bad because there was much to like in this story.

  6. Norm Rosolen

    First rate writing. Literary. In my opinion. I think of it as being experimental, an artist trying a something new. Even so, a little critiquing wouldn’t hurt.

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