by Christi Nogle
On a Friday morning in August, Talia Simpson hops down the porch steps of her big cream-colored house. Her cream-colored dog quickly passes her, straining on his leash. He pees on the fence for a long time, and then they are off on a power walk. On Talia, the speed registers in a jelly swish of hips and a slowly unraveling reddish ponytail. The dog, a big puppy really, keeps to a quick up-and-down trot. It is already warm at not quite 8 a.m. and could break 110 today. The neighborhood looks reconciled to it. There isn’t anyone out or anything frail left out in the sun. Cars go by with their windows up as though the heat of noon could get at them already. Talia is feeling excellent, as always, and yes, feeling a little contemptuous of all these air conditioned commuters.
The puppy stops. Talia is so cut off her rhythm that she nearly stumbles, but then she turns to coo at the puppy and gently pull him forward. He’s stopped right at the spot where someone’s pressed their handprints and written a name in the sidewalk. That’s strange, she thinks, and as she stops to read the name, the puppy takes the chance to jerk back sharply, right out of his collar.
Talia doesn’t waste a minute to call but tries to catch at him. Her arm flashes out only to grasp a handful of tail hairs, and then he’s running. She can be fast, too, and she’s nearly caught up to him again when he tucks his butt in for extra power and zooms off in the direction of Main. Talia steps into the street and waves to stop a car.
I’m driving to my job at the alternative school with a low buzzing ache in my head and little hope for the day. The radio guys puke out, “Looks like it might break 110 today. If that isn’t hot enough for you I don’t know what is.” I laugh for a minute before I realize it isn’t funny. I guess it’s nice to hear voices.
It’s been a hard week. I was hot last weekend, so inspired, and then I’ve been racing through the story every night after summer-school classes so that I could mail it on time this morning. I examined the manila envelopes three times before slipping them into the mail box. Postage, addresses, return addresses– that’s me, Roger Jacobs at 823 Jacobson Street, though of course the byline is something more suitable for the erotic horror genre–and finally let them fall through the slot. Unless I’m mistaken, the story inside is going to finally get me published.
There’s a price. Coffee and nothing to eat will make my breath stink like death by mid-morning. Funny, I always thought of bad breath as bologna sandwich breath or too much garlic, but those are perfumes compared to the cat piss reek of bitter coffee and whatever else is twisting in my stomach. I write, “Take better care of self” on the notepad in the driver seat.
I feel like drug addicts say they felt before the end, like I can just keep it together for one more day, something will open up for me.
As I’m slowing for the light, a middle-aged lady steps right out in front of the car, yelling but giving an apologetic, no-big-deal gesture.
I have to roll down the window to hear her: “You’ve got to help me out for a minute, kay? Let me in.” A hooker, I think for a second, though I can’t pin that feeling to anything about her clothing or all that scrubbed-looking flesh.
“Hold on,” I say. “I’m right in the street.”
“Or can you just turn around and go get him? He’ll jump right in the car, any car. Okay? Just open your door when you see him.” She’s waving an empty pink collar. She still has the leash end wrapped tightly around her other hand.
I nod and start rolling up the window. I even think about doing it. I check my mirrors to see if it would be alright to turn around. All is clear, but I head forward in the direction of school as I might have guessed I would. Can’t be late, those kids are trouble enough already.
I wake each summer morning surprised to be back in the pink bedroom. It’s my first long visit since I left for college two years ago, and that’s what I chant to myself making up: just a visit, just a long visit, nothing to worry about. Each morning after the chant, I have coffee and write in my journal until my sisters wake and I have to give myself over to watching them.
On Friday morning, I’m still in bed when Mom comes back from her walk. My room is just off the kitchen, so I hear her putting on coffee, making a phone call. I wish I’d shut my door. I want coffee, but I also want to stay in bed so she can’t have the chance to give more chores, but I also want the coffee.
I hear her sobbing and check the clock: almost nine. She isn’t going in to work.
“What’s wrong,” I ask from the doorway.
“The puppy,” she says. “Don’t wake the girls.”
“Where’s the puppy?” I ask, but her face is grave. I see the smears on her shirt. “Is he hurt? Is he dead?”
“I don’t know. Is he?”
“Will you check for me, Janey, please?”
So I have to walk out to the shed where she’s laid him. I watch the skinned dent in his chest for a long time before I’m sure that the movement beneath is real and not a function of my own eyes throbbing. There are other abrasions on his side. A piece of white bone or cartilage juts from his hip, under the only spot that’s really gruesome and wet with blood. It’s strange to see that coat ripped open so soon; he was just-grown. Poor puppy. His name was Dave but no one ever called him that.
It’s a strange morning. I listen to Mom’s story and help her clean it up so it’s ready for Claire and Lynna.
When the puppy checks in dead, I take a picture of him and call Mom. We pack his wounds with paper towels and wrap him in a white sheet. We wash his face, wake the girls, retell for them their story: God thought he was such a nice puppy, He wanted him to live in heaven. They stare sideways at each other while we try to convince them of this. We pick flowers. They insist on packing his mouth with flowers. Hole digging, funeral. We have to carry the old dog, Toby, out on his dog bed like it’s a stretcher because he’s not good today either. Lynna keeps telling Claire that we’re going to bury her next until she’s wailing and Mom takes them into the house to watch videos.
I clean up and put in a little time on the computer, and since Mom’s home I have no more duties, except for one last errand. I know who killed our puppy, or good as killed him, and I want to let him know that what he did is not okay.
After my stop at the alternative school, I keep walking. I’m thinking only of the sweat and the heat, how they strengthen me. It isn’t until I catch the drivers of the cars doing double takes that I remember that I am a skinny, tan woman out walking the streets in a tank top and boxers. I must look like fun. But Talia Simpson’s daughter or not, there’s nothing sexy about me. They can tell, men can, when they get close enough. I’ve never known if it’s a smell, or a lack of smell, or a certain way of smiling. There must be something to explain the way Mom draws men and the way that I do not.
I’m almost to the park when a car slows to a crawl beside me. He has a mullet so long that he’s sitting on it. He leans over the passenger seat to ask me questions, first soft ones and then, as I don’t answer, harsher ones. Finally he speeds away.
I know I’ve been staying home so much to avoid questions like these. I don’t like to think of them here among familiar houses. I’m passing by the house of an old boyfriend right now and think of the way he would ask me to sit on his lap and I’d do it holding all the weight on my legs. He was cute as a television boyfriend, and sweet, but I just couldn’t.
When I walk into the park, all I think of are the family picnics Mom held with men called Larry or Teddy or Dave. In the shade at the corner of the park, there’s a kid about twelve years old in a lawn chair with a cardboard box of free puppies beside him. I look inside and see they’re very young.
“Don’t you think it’s too hot out here?” I say.
“Mom said I can’t come home until they’re gone,” he says, “and I’m keeping them cool.” He picks up a spray bottle and mists them so they’re damp when I pick one up. The yellow hairs stick to my hands with what feels like grease.
“They can’t sweat, you know,” the kid says.
The puppy I hold is a little limp but fat enough, probably healthy. “Cute,” I say.
“Not as cute as you,” he says and looks straight at me before he starts to be embarrassed and grins down at the ground.
“Not half as cute as you,” I say, and it’s right. He’s dark-skinned and has a pretty face, soft eyes. Without thinking, I lean in and give him a kiss on the corner of his mouth and then turn away before he’s opened his eyes.
I smile to myself imagining him blissed-out for the rest of the day, but when I get a few paces away he starts yelling that I better come back and take a puppy. He’s threatening me, calling out familiar names. When I get out of his sight, though it’s painful in the heat, I turn and run towards home.
The day was a horror. Air conditioning whittled off twenty degrees in the modular unit, but it didn’t keep us from sweating. The students reeked. I imagined all their vile little criminal thoughts had come to the surface to choke the air.
I’m free now, though. I walk out into oven air and sunlight powerful enough to destroy me. I see papers tucked under my windshield and move faster, expecting something nice— valuable coupons, maybe a carnival come to town — but the sheets are home-printed photos on thin cheap paper. The first one shows a yellow dog lying in a messy shed. It’s cut up, pretty clearly dead. The second picture must be the funeral. There’s a black cocker spaniel in attendance looking ready for the grave itself, a little kid in a black tank top with back turned to the camera and another little kid sitting beside the turned ground with tears coming down her cheeks in sheets. Her face looks like it could turn inside out.
When I get home I go down to the basement to write, but I can’t do it. I stopped in the middle of a line, the exciting central image of the new piece. I read what I have written:
She licks around the belly, up the side, over the shoulder, down the arm. Her tongue feels cool like the back of a spoon. She finally reaches the fingers, rubs her face on them like a cat would do. She nibbles on them, and then a taste is not enough. She takes two fingers into her mouth. She keeps her own finger in the lover’s navel; it’s enough to pin the body to the floor. She bites down into bone. It would not seem that a person could bite through bone so lovingly but she does. She begins to. And that is when her face begins to change. There are shadows moving over it, shadows from nothing in the room. The shadows begin to have reference points on the face. The face itself is shifting, and
I had imagined my face on a book jacket. I had imagined how they would say I have an intense gaze. Now all I see is the crying baby in the photograph and I hate myself more bitterly than I ever have before. One would think this self-hatred would channel into the work, but it does not. There is no translation for it. I put my clothes back on and head out for walk.
At dusk on Friday, Talia chats with the convenience store clerk. “I’ll be seeing you every day until my car gets back from the shop, then, ‘kay?” You going to give me a deal if I do?” Her little girls stand still at her side. The taller one rolls her eyes.
Something about Talia’s voice catches the attention of a strange black-haired man sucking on a Thirst Buster by the exit. When she leaves, he gazes intensely at the fifty cents in his hand like he is debating whether to put it into the video game or save it for something better. By the time she’s reached the sidewalk he’s decided. He drops it into his pocket and follows her.
Three blocks from the convenience store, Talia and her daughters open a gate and turn into a yard. They hop up porch steps and through the door of a massive house. It was a bungalow at one time, but now the porch is glassed in, additions jut off each side, and dormers come out of the roof at odd angles. The entirety of it, trim and shed and picket fence and all, has been painted in beige semigloss.
The man watches the house for a while but can see nothing move inside. He walks away.
On Friday night after the girls are in bed, Mom and I gossip at the kitchen table while we work crosswords. She tells me that the convenience store clerk is married but she doesn’t think it’s a happy marriage. She tells me about a new coworker whose soul was consumed when she was younger, and how I must promise again that I will never touch drugs.
I tell about a long string of emails that recently caused a stir in the Department of Theatre Arts where I work as a student administrative assistant. It was this never-ending stream of impassioned arguments about the nature of Theatre Studies all spurred on by a call to revise the mission statement. I’m on the list because of the job, but following the emails kind of made me want to change my major and join the department. They made the subject seems so fascinating and controversial, though I could see the humor in it too because what they were getting so worked up about mattered not at all to most people.
“You’ll stay where you are,” Mom says.
“I’ll think about it,” I say.
“Thinking too much is like not thinking,” she says, tapping the side of her temple with her pencil. She rises to go to bed.
When she’s gone, I remember how much all of my girlfriends couldn’t stand Mom. I remember how one good friend in junior high would gnaw on the inside of her cheek whenever Mom was around. I never saw why at the time, but it might have been because she says things like that.
Saturday is my official day off from watching the girls, and I save the whole day to lie out on the strappy chaise in the side lawn. It’s not even going to break 100 today, but it’s bright. The oil goes on gluey at first but turns thin as water as it heats. The sweat comes from underneath the oil to puddle in my navel and between my tits. Then I start to feel like I’m cooking, putting in good time. The yard smells like dogshit. Sweat comes down my forehead, tickles across my nose, and finally steals in to sting my eyes. It’s good. I’m getting something accomplished.
The gate creaks, and I sit up. I love how it feels to open your eyes when it’s bright enough to see everything all at once. I see Mr. Jacobs standing just inside the gate dressed in school clothes, cupping in one hand a squirming little boy puppy, a yellow one, and with the other hand fiddling with a crease in his Dockers. I can see all the cowlicks in his black hair, the coarse weave of his shirt, the pores in his nose, the fine hairs on the border of the puppy’s pink belly and the damp hairs at the tip of his boy parts.
For a second I think that Mr. Jacob is coming for me—that he’s about to charge at me like a bear—but he stays where he is. He asks, “Your mother around?”
I point up to the porch and all confusion clears. I can see why he’s here and the rest of it, some porn scheme where he says his lines wrong, looking at the floor for a few beats before they start getting it on five different ways on the kitchen table. I stand, the oil at first standing with me and then crawling down my body.
The oil at first stands with her and then crawls down her body toward the ground where she will leave puddleprints in the grass all the way to a picture window where she leans into sharp shrubs and peers inside. Red strap marks slash across her flexed leg muscles, across her sharp shoulder blades. She frames her hands to shade her face—she leans in further—but the oil is still slick on her hands and they spread wide apart, smearing the glass, and from a distance it looks like she is parting the water of a calm lake.
I emerge two hours later with no puppy and no personality left. I make it to the car, drive home, eat slices of bread one by one until I am filled. I sit on the center seat of the couch until I yawn, and then I go to sleep.
My mind starts to come back to me in bed. I think, she has three kids and a body to prove it, no car. Probably, what? Massive credit card debt or a criminal history. I am telling myself how bad it all must be and that I must not go back, but when I get to the part about criminal history all I see is Talia, star of a women’s prison scene. I have my window open to the night so my anguished little cries blend with the sound of crickets.
I have a date with her tomorrow, to barbecue. I don’t know how I’ll wait that long.
Talia walks to the grocery store with the girls, as always, tagging behind. Clair pinches Lynna hard on the biceps and whispers that her arms are fat as Mom’s. They’ve already giggled at Talia’s flowered sundress and the abundance of freckled pink flesh it reveals. Talia, for her part, carries herself like a dancer. He flits, she flirts with the meatman when she gets hamburger and lingers near the bakery until it’s clear no one is coming out.
On the way home, the three pass under the lacy shade of a large tree. When shadows fall on Talia’s curls and freckles and the specked flowers of her dress, for an instant she disappears in a pointillist pattern. As if she’s made of bees or dust motes, her edges disappear. Claire and Lynna very nearly gasp at the sight of it, but then she’s back in straight sunlight and is their mom again.
I bring the buns. Yesterday, when I was dressing in her bedroom, she said, “Bring the buns” and squeezed my butt cheek hard. So I bring the buns and a twelve-pack of green soda. Now all I am supposed to do is sit in a lawn chair until lunch. I keep thinking how pretty they all are as they hustle around getting the food ready.
Janey’s skin’s a little like jerky under too much sparkle makeup, but she’s gorgeous of course. Claire and Lynna are as sweet as any girls could be, so innocent. They’re wheeling the new puppy around in a doll carriage instead of helping with the salad like they were told. They named him Roger after me.
I can picture them sleepy, sitting on my knee. The old Cocker is on some towels out by the puppy’s grave in the shade, mourning or napping. Something about the whole scenes makes me want to change. It makes me want to stop writing what I have been writing, for one thing. When I try to think of my last story’s plot it all seems dangerous, pointless and sick. I hope that the editors will throw those packets away unread.
The girls inspire me, but Talia is something more. She wears a sleeveless sundress in dappled pink and spice colors that seems all covert allusion to her bedroom, how everything was dusted cinnamon and rose and how the sun came in little beams through the blinds and the half-open wine-red sheers. I get a prick of self-pity thinking how I never before made love in the middle of the day in the light like that.
Talia keeps looking at me shyly like she isn’t sure what to do with me now. But she’s smiling. I watch her place the blue glass salad bowl on the picnic table. I watch until she comes to me and kisses me and skips back toward the grill. I know now that she hasn’t got any bad history, only maybe a bad man somewhere in the past.
I keep thinking, on that day —just yesterday? — when I brought the puppy, maybe she hadn’t ever done anything like that before, either. Probably she hadn’t.
After lunch, Mom is doing dishes and Mr. Jacobs is walking around the yard looking drained, like he might faint.
“It’s too hot for this,” he says.
I guess he means it’s too hot for me to be back in my swimsuit in the sun, trying to get a little more color on the backs of my legs while I write in my journal.
“You know,” he says, “I’m a writer too.”
I turn over to look at him, say, “Oh really?”
“Well,” he says. He practices looking humble. “I was thinking just now how there are so many beautiful days when I go in the basement to write, thinking there’ll be other beautiful days.” He stops speaking, gazes over at Claire and Lynna who are talking in the shade.
“The point?” I say.
“Just enjoy it,” he says. He’s sweating at the hairline. “You think there will be other days, maybe even better than this, but you just don’t know.”
“Thanks, Mr Jacobs,” I say. “You know I left those pictures on your car? I remembered your car from when you used to sub at the high school.” I want to break through his stupor, but now I’m starting to remember him more, and I think maybe the stupor is all there is.
He nods. “You must have known it was me because she said I looked intense, or strange, or something,” he says. “It’s okay. I didn’t think she left them, if that’s what you mean.”
“She wouldn’t want to make me feel guilty.”
I pull the beach blanket around me and stand close to him. I say, “Want to hear a story about Mom?” He looks like I might hit him, but I go on: “Before we got air conditioning, Mom liked to leave all the windows open, and sometimes she left the doors open too. So one day she has it all open for cross-breezes and goes to take a nap. It’s not night; it’s like dusk. She wakes up with this thing—this creature—on top of her chest pawing at her, scratching her. It’s a heavy thing, just mauling her in her sleep, so she starts creaming and somehow gets out from underneath it, and runs after it down the hall and out the door.” I’m laughing by the end.
“Was it a dog?” Mr. Jacobs asks.
“We don’t know. That’s not the point.”
“Could it have been a bobcat or maybe a coyote?”
“It could have,” I say. I lean in closer. “But the point is this: Mom’s the kind of person things like that happen to. Do you see?”
He nods, but now he’s focused on me. He thinks what he sees is something about me.
Mr. Jacobs crosses the street and starts his car to get his air conditioning going. He’s taking Mom and the girls out to some cartoon playing at the dollar theater. As they walk out toward the gate, I say, “Look at the little duckies follow the mother ducky,” and Lynna flips me the bird. I smile — she thinks she’s gotten away with it — but then I rush up and pull her hand to the ground. “I’m looking for my pocketknife,” I say, frisking over my pockets. “I’m going to cut that finger off for you.” Lynna is shrieking and pulling back, scraping her own palm on the concrete walk. When I’m sure she believes me, I let her go. She lets Claire take her hand. Claire rubs and then kisses at the scrape.
“Sheesh,” Mom says, shaking her head. “Are you two ready to go?” They murmur at her as they cross the street, and I can make out Mom’s reply, “Well you shouldn’t have flipped the bird, should you?”
When the girls are settled in the backseat, Lynna scowls at me through the glass. She forks her fingers and snakes her tongue between them and for the finale does a blow-job gesture, but her technique is lousy. She would choke herself. Claire flips the bird now, shyly from behind her sister as if I won’t see.
In the front seat, Mr Jacobs’ head is turned toward Mom like she’s explaining what just happened. He looks out at me like I’ve hurt his baby, but then Mom pulls him back toward her, and when he faces front again I see the intense gaze, the anger, all of it is gone.
Christi Nogle’s short stories have appeared in publications such as Dappled Things, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and Flame Tree Publishing’s American Gothic anthology. Christi teaches college composition and lives in Boise, Idaho with her partner Jim and their dogs and cats.
Flippin’ The Bird photo credit – Igor Miske via Unsplash
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You might also like Petite Marie, another story from the Winter Short Story competition 2019.