- Barry Hannah
- Open City/AAWW
- Sound Art/Dissonance
- Trance Poetics
It could be worse, she thinks, while brushing her teeth, remembering the old man in the wheelchair behind the register of the drugstore where she and Jolene liked to buy nail polish on Saturdays. Lucy remembers peering behind the checkout counter at the man, unable to keep her eyes from glancing down at the part of him folded onto the chair, one leg of his navy pants pinned up mid-thigh. He found her pretty, could tell by the way he stared, like there was something about her worth committing to memory.
The last time they went shopping, the two of them holding tight to the twisted necks of their plastic bags, Jolene had asked Lucy what she thought had happened to the man. Did she think he was injured in the war? Lucy didn’t know. She was quiet for a moment then pulled her arms up against her body, hands flopped over like a dog begging, pointed her toes in, ass out, stuck her neck to one side, and said duh like a retard. Jolene had laughed, clapped one of her tiny hands over the white cob of her teeth. But afterwards Lucy had felt bad. Doesn’t want to be mean no matter how good it feels to make Jolene laugh.
She spits a white frothy blob into the sink, runs the water until it disappears, stuffs a pink vial of gloss into the front pocket of her jeans even though Max says it makes her taste like a third-grader.
Her boyfriend of six weeks, Max, his parents are out of town and today she has agreed to come over. She doesn’t know where his parents have gone. Her own mother only goes to Sterk’s late at night for ice cream or gummy bears, cellophane-wrapped snacks she’ll eat on the greasy couch, watching reruns, sometimes crying into a pillow when Lucy’s mother thinks she’s asleep.
Today her mother believes she is shopping with Jolene. Shopping for nail polish and earrings that dangle and maybe a slice of pie at Baker’s Square—lemon meringue and chocolate silk—only today she’s dabbing perfume behind her ears, won’t be able to devise an excuse when Max pulls her into his bedroom. All they’ve done is kissed. Max slid a hand up her shirt last Saturday night, squeezed her left breast in the half-lit gravel lot outside the mini-golf but she didn’t feel much. Nothing near how the characters reacted on the cable movies she and Jolene watched weekend nights burrowed in sleeping bags on the cement floor of Jolene’s basement.
Lucy worries as she slips on her shoes and wraps a scarf around her neck, acrylic strands sticking to her lips; the apartment door clips behind her, a hollow sound like a send-off to her youth.
You see, he doesn’t look like the other boys. Not with that arm, hand like a flipper—the slight nodule where a thumb should be.
They’ve been in the same class since first grade and she couldn’t recall anyone teasing him much about his arm. Even now he refuses to wear a coat, anything that might hide the arm. Max has more friends than her, seems to laugh easier, hair that lays nicely, curls just so at the back, a sort of guidepost where she likes to place her hands when they kiss. Today they are going to be alone in his house, kitchen curtains with cutouts of ducks and chickens, living room furniture all the same wavy green, and she will have to pretend her shudder stems from excitement.
Jolene says she should be happy Max is going out with her. He’s more popular than she is and is the kind of guy that will make her seem more interesting. That’s what Jolene had said the hours leading up to the party where Jolene had helped the two of them hook up—grabbing hold of Lucy’s sweater and play punching Max’s shoulder as she shoved them into the laundry room. There was the smell of bleach and pine cleaner and something artificially meaty—dog food? The room itself dark, newly fallen snow visible through a window above the sink made everything outside phosphorescent. She found herself drawn toward a basket of folded clothes set atop the washer and stood gripping the sides, ready to plunge her hands into the clean and pressed clothes of a stranger when he’d kissed her. She hadn’t even known he was beside her. He missed her mouth, lips, connecting with a part of chin, the corner of Lucy’s mouth. Then she’d turned herself so she faced him properly, just as Jolene would advise. He was careful not to touch her with the arm. She sensed its presence burning there in front of her, but he’d kept it to himself as if he’d known how much it repulsed.
Today there will be no holding back.
There are two girls at the high school, pregnant. She remembers when they crossed the halls of the junior high where Lucy’s enrolled, heads down, notebooks in hand, on their way to class. They are only two years older than she is. Now tiny creatures grow inside each of them. She imagines the babies like fish: glistening bodies, sleek heads, mouths snapping open and shut. She doesn’t want a baby like some of the other girls. She doesn’t know what she wants. When she was little and her mother seemed happier it was easier to dream. About being a pilot or a chef. She had no desire to be a doctor or a nurse. Money didn’t motivate her. You had to smell unwashed hair and touch warts and sop up bloody guts while looking completely at ease. If that was success she didn’t want it. Which is one of the reasons why she liked Max. He didn’t seem to be interested in the regular things either. He played the drums, wore black T-shirts even now in the dire chill of February, and what impressed her most: he didn’t seem at all embarrassed by the arm. Everything else about him was normal looking. He had brown hair and brown eyes with long curled eyelashes. He didn’t seem at all self-conscious about his looks, which was vastly different from Lucy’s mother who was always on some strange diet, eating only grapefruit then stuffing her face at night when she thought it wouldn’t matter.
Although they’ve been together six week and talked about their parents and admitted who in school they can’t stand the sight of, fooled around on the couch in Max’s basement, he hasn’t touched her with the bad hand. In a short while when Max touches her with it she wants to be blank, like the water that streamlines those growing babies, cushioning them. Max doesn’t believe her when she tells him, but she is certain she remembers what it was like to be inside her mother. She recalls being jostled about, sloshing to and fro in the dark. She could hear her mother’s voice, lighter than it is now, content. And she knows part of the reason is because Lucy’s dad was with her mom then. They lived in a house with a porch and shrubs and in the summer there had been an inflatable pool with three juicy rings of color in the backyard beneath a flowering tree. Her mother refilled the pool every day, scooping up lightning bugs and whirly birds and anything else that dropped from the sky so that looking out from the back door the water stood clear as glass.
They lived there with an uncle. Lucy’s dad’s adopted brother. Lucy didn’t remember him. Wouldn’t even know his name if she hadn’t found a notebook that belonged to her mother beneath the mattress years ago when she was looking for her Barbie’s shoe. Her mom had written about his good looks and the way he made her feel all gummy inside, wrote that he said she was smart and that he liked her cooking and was much nicer than Lucy’s real dad. So one day she’d waited until Lucy’s dad was working overtime, waited until Lucy’s uncle was in front of the TV with a sandwich and beer and she waltzed right into the room in nothing but a pair of silver high heels she’d worn when she stood up in a friend’s wedding. She punched the power button on the set and stood there, waited to be ravished or loved or whatever it is she hoped he might do. Instead, he opened his overgrown mouth, teeth a dull yellow, and laughed. Lucy always imagined the sound of his laughter in the little house like panes of glass shattering.
When her mother gets on her nerves, Lucy thinks back to that day. How things must have changed after that. Her mother still had a good figure then. Lucy’d seen photos. The uncle a colossal jerk.
Lucy didn’t know what happened between her parents but she guessed it had something to do with that day and the way her uncle had laughed. If Lucy asked a question about her dad her mother would leave the room, put a damp towel over her eyes and stretch out on her bed for the rest of the night. There wouldn’t be the chicken strips she favored or any chocolate treats. There wouldn’t be any dinner at all.
Lucy keeps questions to herself.
Like most things—her mother’s marriage, the string of B’s Lucy was earning last fall—Lucy is waiting for her friendship with Jolene to end. Soon her friend will realize how boring she really is. Taking on a boyfriend seems to have enthralled her, made Lucy somewhat fascinating to Jolene who also has a boyfriend. They talk about their guys on the phone or when they eat nachos at the cafeteria tables, discussing how to look their best. Jolene says Max is a perfect first boyfriend, reminds Lucy to call her afterwards.
She wonders: How long will it take, after all?
Ever since Max told her about his parents being away, made clear that they would have the house to themselves, she has been preparing. Begging off Jolene’s invitations to come over and instead coming home after school. Her mother works until six most days, even Saturdays, the muffler on her ratty car an easy warning; still, she has been locking the door to her mother’s bedroom. There she takes off her sweater and jeans and lets them pool at her feet. She stands there in her underwear surprised yet again by the image shining back. She can see the gentle outline of muscle on her arms, the way her waist dips in at the side, legs firm as blocks of wood. She shifts weight from one leg to the other, takes out a roll of packing tape and a rubber spatula. She unfurls a long strip, presses the spatula against her arm, tapes it onto her, covering the fingers and blessed hand with its dull blade.
The tape sticks to her arm hairs, the spatula heavy, its head just eclipsing her fingertips.
She stands in front of the dresser mirror that once witnessed her parents conjoined, her mother’s dimpled legs opening to make way for her father, the reflection of their naked embrace glaring back, and angles her arm so the blade hovers above her skin. She starts at her collarbone, turns her arm so the blade just brushes against her, slowly moves downward, dull rubber grazing the cleavage that spills from her purple underwire bra, until she arrives at the outside rim of her nylon panties where it becomes easier to imagine the paddle is him.
Lucy practices a look of indifference.
If she is lucky, she will strike a balance between nonchalance and this: the aching pleasure that shivers up from the pit low inside her, a place she imagines filling with cold, dark water.
She imagines her mother’s humiliation, the sound of laughter forever cackling in her ear; it is that sound she tried to plug up with every Hostess snack cake, every half-gallon of ice cream.
Lucy’s eyes begin to well up. She is in front of the mirror attached to her mother’s dresser, the wood a profound red, like the inside of a ripe plum, and she thinks about her mother’s wide, soft face, now too fat to be considered pretty. Her eyes are greenish brown with flecks of gold. Like river pebbles, she supposedly told her mother when she was a child.
One time her mother took off her clothes for a man she loved or thought she loved (is there a difference?).
She and Max are together, boyfriend and girlfriend, almost lovers.
Soon she will let him touch her with the cool shell of his hand and if he brings it next to her face she will kiss it lovingly, her mouth open ever so slightly, tasting the inevitability of regret, her own future sadness waiting to be born.
Melissa Fraterrigo is the author of the short story collection The Longest Pregnancy (Livingston Press). Her fiction has been published in Puerto del Sol, Massachusetts Review, Carolina Quarterly, StorySouth and elsewhere. She lives in Indiana with her husband and two daughters and is currently at work on a novel-in-stories.