I. Things That Can Sting
My older brother Mason gets home tomorrow. That’s what this is all about. But it’s not about him, it’s about me and my world and him coming back to it. My name is Phoebe and I am twenty years old. But maybe that much you knew. Truly important things to know about me are these: first, I love the taste of words like phlebotomy, sphygmomanometer, and promontory. I roll them like marbles in my mouth then spit them out and line them up neatly. Second, I live close to my body. I live in the pores of my skin — they echo everything I hear, regular, scooped-out miniature caves. Last night I noticed these whispy white hairs down the sides of my boobs and I didn’t like them so I plucked them one by one, twisting to see in the mirror of my compact, watching how I changed shape, making room for echoes — it took me most of the night so I haven’t slept too much.
This is also about sleep and getting it. It’s about inventories: for instance, the big toe on my left foot is bleeding where I tore the nail off and my right eye has started twitching again. My hair is still brown and cut straight at my chin. My eyes are grey, and I have a wide scar like a smile under my left knee from falling on the train tracks when I was little: I found a hole under the fence at the back of the field where Mason’s soccer games were and I was trying to have an
adventure and I didn’t know how to be afraid. This is my favorite scar.
Right now I’m on my bed, watching night fall through my window: my roommate and I, we decided to keep the Christmas lights strung on the porch even though it’s summer because no one can stop us; she insists on the floodlight outside the garage because she’s afraid of home invaders. I haven’t told her it keeps me up all night because living with someone else is about compromises. These lights brighten as the sun goes down and paint the patio with flame and shadow.
My brother Mason gets in tomorrow early in the morning and I may or may not go to the airport; that is up to me. Brunch is not optional. My dad called me this morning and woke me up — just after I finally fell asleep — to tell me all the numbers of Mason’s flight and brunch and driving times. My dad likes to call me, I think, and hear my voice shoot across town, but it’s easier for him when there are numbers. Mason has been living in South Korea the past four years, being a photojournalist (or just a man with a camera, I don’t know for sure). I don’t know where he lived the year before that, he didn’t tell us. Maybe he was in California. Maybe he was downtown, squatting in a warehouse by the river. Who knows. My mom always said he was meant for more than he would find in Memphis.
Mason is six years older than me. In Korea he found a wife and a three-legged dog and sent postcards on holidays; he made the postcards from his own photos and they weren’t at all holidayish. Anyway the wife didn’t work out and something happened with the job or the government or visas, so he’s coming back and bringing the three-legged dog with him, which I’m sure is costing dad a fortune. He’ll live in his old bedroom at my dad’s house which has been, in the meantime: a gym, an office, a storage room for my dead grandma’s knick knacks. Mason’s books have always stayed on the shelves.
My shrink Karen worries about his return and how it will affect me. I mentioned to her that I have historically liked writing letters and stories and she said, Yes, great, it’s good for you, and added it to my homework. I bought a fancy pen and a binder and some good heavy paper and here I am. I don’t have to tell you the truth or anything at all; that’s up to me. It’s Friday and I need toilet paper and macaroni and cheese and to kill the wasps that live outside my bedroom window. They find cracks and in they come — heavy and throbbing. Get a job, I tell them. I hit them with rolled up copies of The Memphis Flyer after I’ve read my horoscope, and they stain the classifieds with their insides. If I get stung, I swell like something rotten in the sun.
Mason and I were very close when I was little, or at least I thought we were. He used to give me journals on my birthdays, and read the stories I wrote at school and tell me I was someone special. But once my dad moved out of our house and into his first shitty divorced-dad-apartment, Mason got smaller. We tiptoed around each other and wore silence like magic capes. When our mom left us, the spells all broke and it was chaos. I was twelve, Mason eighteen. We both started wearing too much eyeliner.
Our dad bought a house and we moved in with him even though Mason was old enough to get his own place, and I asked him to do that and take me with him. When I was fourteen (almost fifteen) I cracked up a little — I lost track of things and spent time in a hospital. That’s around when Mason disappeared. This is an inventory so it has to be a little boring and I’ll be honest, I’m boring myself now. Maybe the details aren’t important, but late at night, they’re where I get lost.
The point of this, Karen says, is to help me keep straight and sorted. I wrote this first chunk because Karen asked me to consider the past and consider my fear. I hope to write at night when normally I lie in bed staring at the fan and rubbing my legs together like a mute cricket — touching my thumb to my fingertips in complicated patterns, waiting for the sun to rise. Maybe I’ll show this to Karen at our next appointment and she will ask me to explain where the fear is — that’s the sort of thing she asks — and I won’t be able to find the right words and in my head I’ll say: Fuck you, Karen, where’s your fear?
The Kroger’s open until ten tonight so I have time to walk there and get the things I need, which is a nice way to pass the night anyway. My roommate Lane just got in — she’s not a quiet walker — and I’m being still so she won’t come in my room.
I am sitting on a curb on Mendenhall Avenue which has very little traffic right now, and I’m writing on the back of my receipt that’s a thousand feet long because of all the surveys and coupons for things I’ll never buy — I’ll copy this into my binder later since I always lose receipts. When I was leaving the Kroger, a homeless man sitting on the display patio furniture told me he’d never seen the ocean so I gave him all my pennies. He had big kind eyes and ratty shoes and he wanted to talk so I listened because I would guess people rarely do. But eventually I had to walk away and he was still talking, and I’m sure he kept talking when I was down the street and out of sight.
I imagined this:
The homeless man I met in front of the Kroger used all but one of the pennies for bus fare, rode to the gulf and waded into the surf until his ratty sneakers were heavy and waterlogged. He lay his last penny on the rolling waves where it floated and grew. Abraham Lincoln melted; a smooth shining sheet curled up at the edges and turned into a copper boat.
The man smiled. He got in the boat and the tide carried him away to an island where he could see all his family waiting on the shore, drinking coconut drinks with umbrellas in them and waving at him, and he thought Great, yes, I’m home.
Except. What if then, everyone wanted him to take them back to the mainland, because life on the island wasn’t as good as all that? What if they swam out to him, holding their coconut drinks over the waves and paddling their feet like duck-feet, and they climbed on board until the boat was too full and it tipped over, while they fought to get back on? Everyone drowned except the original homeless man I met in front of the Kroger. He’s left treading water in the middle of all those bodies. His boat sinks. What then? My hope is: he buys a hot dog instead.
When I got home from the store I found a pixie in the kitchen: a teeny tiny blond girl in moon boots and a long fur vest. She was staring at the blue gas stove flame. A red kettle I’d never seen before sat on the burner. She noticed me in the doorway and hugged me too hard, told me her name is Gabby. The kettle whistled before I could decide whether or not to hug her back. She offered me tea and I said yes because everything was weird and happening very fast.
I put my macaroni and cheese and vinegar on my shelf in the pantry and she poured hot water into mugs and covered them with saucers. She talked at me.
Apparently she is a friend of my roommate Lane’s. Something dramatic happened with her stepdad that I didn’t follow, and now she’s staying in our detached garage. The garage has a real room, with air conditioning and cable, an old boxy tube TV and cracked leather couches our landlord left. Lane told Gabby she could stay with us as for long as she needed to, but then, as soon as Gabby got here, Lane gave her some sheets and a towel and left to sleep at her boyfriend’s house, which is, I think, pretty rude.
Anyway, then Gabby picked up both our mugs and said, You wanna come back to my room for a while? Like she’d always lived there, and I said yes again and followed her. My feelings about Gabby are: she should have a pet wolf that’s bigger than she is and that she should always be holding a stick of smoking sage and she should live in the woods and not in my garage.
All she had in the back room with her was Winston, her vacuum cleaner, a small bag of clothes, a blanket to cover the one high window, and the red tea kettle. Winston is her dog, a black terrier. He’s old and blind and mean and apparently has an anxiety disorder which is why Gabby has to cover the windows with the blanket and feed him Klonopin every day. (Her pupils were huge and I think Winston probably shares his drugs with her — she keeps them in the cabinet under the TV.) The vacuum, she told me, has a lot of sentimental value that I didn’t really follow. She cleans houses as a job and is emotional about it I guess.
We got to talking about her work and she mentioned Mason’s friend Emmy and that is how we found out we have Emmy in common and by extension Mason, and perhaps her coming to my house at this time is more than coincidence — though of course I didn’t say that to Gabby. Gabby cleans houses with Emmy, and also she and Emmy know each other from school even though Emmy is seven classes ahead of us. That’s how Memphis works: everyone knows each other, especially the slutty girls because those names get spread around like loose change.
Emmy is someone I love. She used to come to my house when I was little and my parents were out of town, and she talked to me like I was a person. Sometimes she made me pancakes shaped like hearts and let me wear her lipstick. She made art, photographing dead lab animals — special-ordered — that Mason said was visionary. She fucked a lot of people in my parent’s bed which later became just my mom’s bed, and I thought that was funny. She lived briefly near the town my mom moved too and sent me an email saying it sucked. She’s thoughtful like that.
Gabby’s okay with me because talking to her is like talking to someone through saran wrap or a waterfall, and my horoscope said to be open-minded this month. After I was in her garage room for an hour or so, I told her I was diabetic and needed to go check my blood sugar. I did this because she wouldn’t be quiet or still and was making me exhausted. I think it’s fine to lie for the sake of expediency; that’s something else you should know about me.
There are now three wasps in the far corner of my room, crawling on the window sill and nodding their heads yes like they have a plan, but I’m too tired to deal with them, and really there are only two wasps but three’s a nicer number. Did you know, there is a kind of wasp that lays its eggs in caterpillars and the caterpillar becomes a zombie incubator for wasp larvae that sprout from its back like tentacles? But the caterpillar doesn’t die—not right away. I worry about
Mason’s plane lands any minute now. I am sitting in the living room in the corner of the sectional sofa. Lane’s blocking the doorway that leads to the L-shaped hallway where our bedrooms are. She’s speaking to Gabby in her calm voice that goes down at the ends.
Gabby, in the hallway, screams and throws books at Leah — I think the books are mine — but she’s so small and her voice is so high it’s like a mosquito having a tantrum. It’s hard to take her seriously. I said a couple helpful things when Gabby first got going, but now I’m irritated and staying out of it. What happened was, Winston’s Klonopin is missing and Gabby’s losing her mind — for some reason she thinks Leah’s boyfriend took them, or that there were spirits here — apparently she’s rather psychic. I took the Klonopin when she and Lane went out for breakfast earlier, and I have them in an aspirin bottle in my sock drawer. I don’t feel bad because those pills cost like two dollars and I need them more than the dog does.
I said no to breakfast with Gabby and Lane, and I got out of going to the airport to pick up Mason because of the horribleness of sitting in a car, but I still have to go to brunch in a couple hours. I’m exhausted from digging through the closet all night looking for I’m not sure what (a pastime Karen said is okay, but not productive) and doing therapy worksheets she gave me that do not work and have horrible advice like: “Snap a rubber band around your wrist!” I fell asleep for a little bit right after sunrise and woke up to an email from my dad full of articles about data processing and the potential for high-paying careers. I don’t think he understands that that makes me want to actually gut myself, which makes me think of how a knife in my stomach would feel (a dull burning ache like when you hold your breath underwater too long and become desperate) and then I just think about knives, sharp edges. He worries about my future.
Lane has fixed things now — it didn’t take too long really. Gabby cried and Lane hugged her and now they’re on the leather couch across from me watching the Kardashians and Lane’s brushing Gabby’s fluffy blond hair that’s matted in the back. If anything, I made them closer.
Brunch at my dad’s went like this:
I got to the house five minutes early because I know that to my dad that means on time. I sat in my car in the driveway for ninety seconds exactly with the radio turned up loud.
I let myself in the front door and went to the bathroom right away and ran the water in what was once my half of the jack and jill bathroom Mason and I shared. I snorted only one and one half of Winston’s Klonopin off the mirror that was still in the drawer to the left of the sink. That was fine. It was acrid and burning in my nose and throat but a warm blanket on the higher parts of my brain — it was the old woman in the chair from Goodnight Moon whispering shhhh…. and hoping no one questions why she’s a rabbit.
I stared at myself in the mirror and tucked my hair behind my ears and wished my eyes were blue instead of grey and that I could go home. Then I heard my dad calling, Phoebe, and I wiped my nose and met him in the hallway and gave him a hug and asked, Where’s Mason? And he said, Come help — set the table.
So I did. I left my dad in the kitchen and went back to the sunroom and I laid the nice plates and real napkins on the table like he asked. I put out glasses and filled a pitcher with ice water and wondered, Who are we trying to impress? And then Mason walked in. His eyes were crusted, hair greasy. He was wearing a sweat-stained T-shirt and boxers and he looked like shit. I ran and hugged him and he hugged me back and patted my back, and then all the sudden we weren’t hugging anymore, just standing there with our arms around each other, having both realized we are strangers.
I let go first, and went to the kitchen for orange juice saying, Be right back.
I passed my dad in the hall and said, Maybe you could suggest he put on pants, sausage isn’t on the menu, and walked away quick before he could grab my arm. In hindsight that probably set a bad tone for the morning.
In the kitchen, I splashed water on my face and the back of my neck and did deep breaths while leaning over the sink and imagined all my feelings as a shiny blue rock in my throat that I could ease down with my mind until it was back where it belonged: deep in my stomach, right over the baby maker. I didn’t learn that in therapy, I made that up myself and it was free.
When I shuffled back toward the sunroom I heard their voices from the hall, a back and forth thrumming that felt like time travel and I had the sensation of walking through water.
I sat at my regular seat at the table and got a bagel even though it wasn’t what I wanted because the basket was closest to me. I tried to catch up on the conversation without interrupting my dad because he hates that. It was some news story about a couple of American guys getting arrested on their way to Somalia to join a terrorist group that attacks other Americans, that’s what my dad was going on about, and Mason was nodding a lot and watching his fork. He didn’t say anything except the encouraging noises people make to show they’re actively pretending to listen. He shoveled eggs into his face and nodded, even when dad starting sounding, to my untrained ear, pretty fucking racist.
I thought to Mason, Who are you, even? but on accident I said it out loud and loudly.
My dad glared at me. I shredded the last bit of bagel and lay it on my plate with all the other pieces. Dad started talking again, holding his knife like a baton and conducting himself, and Mason darted his eyes at me and shoveled a bite of eggs into his mouth and went back to being no one. My dad said something about towel heads but it was just a joke just a joke, and still Mason stared at his plate of eggs — which by the way he never would’ve eaten before without asking if they were cage free? Grass fed?
You’re such a hypocrite, I said.
My dad banged his knife onto the table, pointed it at me like a compass needle.
Enough, Phoebe, he said. That’s enough.
It wasn’t though, not even close. We didn’t talk about Korea. We didn't talk about anything. Oh and Mason’s dog was there the whole time, curled up on the couch that dogs are not allowed on and dad acting like that was fine just fine while the dog went to town on his nads, slobbering all over the upholstery.
My dad doesn’t even let me eat in his car.
After brunch, I went up to my old bedroom and searched under the bed and in the closet and found a box of old diaries which I’m too scared to read and also a packet of letters which I did eventually read because I remembered most of what they said anyway. And I found a box of home movies on VHS that I will watch in Gabby’s room later because that is where the VCR is.
III. The Things That Fall Apart
What do you remember about your last night in Memphis? I found the tape I watched it. I remember and can guess enough to piece something together and fill in the gaps with my own cream filling, a little marshmallow fluff. Here’s the summary: You went to Emmy’s with your buddies to help her with some film project that was so so important that she never even finished it. Even though I was fourteen and alone and scared and you knew it — you said you’d come back that night but you didn’t, and when you got home the next morning I was bleeding in the bathtub with my wrists laid inexpertly open, which thank god is not your fault right? That’s what dad told us, that’s what Karen told me — don’t even worry Mason, it wasn’t your fault. Or mine it turns out and definitely not dad’s, so everybody’s blame free, go figure — you get the story you pay for.
On the tape I found, you walk in and out of the frame maybe three times, past a table of random crap — visionary art. There are long gaps where the night gets darker and a streetlight goes out then comes back on and a lightbulb flickers and buzzes and dies. Each time you show up I can see you’re more and more fucked up. I speed it up it looks like slapstick. What was it worth? When you found me, you called the ambulance and you called dad and once they said I’d be ok, you got the fuck out didn’t you? Too much too much. We’ll blame the drugs, let’s do. I feel sorry for your dog.
Gabby watched the tape from Mason’s last night with me. It was late. After brunch I went to Fox and the Hound and sat at the bar reading and watching the bartender with the blue eyes wipe down bottles and move things around. I slept for a long time when I got home, and when I woke up Gabby was in the kitchen boiling water and eating my Cheezits, and I asked if I could use the VCR and she just didn’t leave. She didn’t understand what we were doing but she held my hand in her lap. She closed one hand around the scars on my wrist and ran her fingertips in circles over my palm. That part was nice. When the tape was done, I dried my eyes and wiped my nose on my sleeves and felt embarrassed. She kissed me — which surprised me — and her mouth was shockingly soft like the undersides of leaves or that spot all dogs have behind their ears. I lay down in her lap so she would pet my hair. Winston growled in the corner. After a while, Gabby fell asleep and was snoring a little and I went inside.
Today the sun’s out. Gabby and Lane went to Kroger this morning and came back with three hibiscus trees in plastic buckets and they’re blooming like crazy. The trunks are braided, the flowers gross and gaudy and I love them. When they brought the trees home, I named them: Philip, Seymour, and Hoffman. Lane thought it was funny. Gabby picked a flower and tried to wear it in her hair but it was as big as her head and wouldn’t stay. This all made me smile for a little bit. Truly though, I feel like a hedgehog, rolled up and waiting. I feel I will stay in this house forever.
When it got dark last night we went to Fox and the Hound, Gabby Lane and me. At the Fox, there are sports fans yelling every ten minutes about a ball that was thrown well or wasn’t, and the drinks are overpriced and so is giant Jenga, but they never look twice at our ID’s and it’s very close to the house. I remember Emmy told me when I was little that it’s not drunk driving if you only have to make three turns or fewer. I’m not a very good driver, but I told that saying to Lane and she took it to heart.
There are three main sections of the Fox, all lined up with windows in between. When you go through the front doors you’re in a middle area with the bar straight in front of you and some tables in the middle and booths to either side. Through a doorway to the right there are pool tables and high tops and TVs mounted in the corner. To the left there are regular tables and more high tops and a stage for karaoke and I hate that side because I hate karaoke. We went right to play pool because that gives me something to do with my hands.
I broke and landed the nine ball in the corner pocket which was great because I like to be stripes and the clean click clack satisfies me. When I looked up, my eyes leveled over the cuestick, and straight through two panes of glass I saw Mason and Emmy, sitting at a table across from one another on the karaoke side of the Fox with their heads leaned close and her hand on his. Emmy had her hair dyed the same as last time I saw her: one side pink the other blue, swirled into matching buns like nothing had changed. Mason looked cleaner than he had at my dad’s. His curly hair was blond again instead of the dishwater color it turns when its dirty. He had a half-full pint in front of him that he spun in circles with his free hand, his mouth moving and his eyes watching—I can only guess—the swirl of condensation on the waxed wood.
Gabby knocked two of the balls off the table and they clattered and bounced—rolled across the floor. Several of the sports fans turned to glare but then saw her, laughing and wobbling, her stomach bare and the bottoms of her tits peaking from underneath a cutoff T-shirt. Their looks changed. Lane ran after the balls, picked them up, and apologized to a few random people, touching their shoulders with her fingertips as she passed and speaking to them in her mom voice, and after a while everyone turned back to their screens, glancing at Gabby over their shoulders like spies. Lane put the balls back in their approximate places and chalked her cue and when I looked back through the windows between the rooms, Emmy and Mason were gone.
Take my turn, I said to Lane. I gotta go pee.
Gabby hopped off her stool, stumbled and made to follow me. Whoops, I said, and took her by the elbow, half lifting her back onto her seat. Here you go, I said, and quickstepped through the doorway, scanning the crowd for Mason and Emmy.
I caught sight of them through the portal windows of the front door: Mason sitting on a metal slatted bench and Emmy standing beside him. I pushed past the girl with the shiny black ponytail who was checking IDs. Sorry, I said, when my shoulder bumped hers. I opened the door and was surprised by how cool the air was, it being almost July, and thought: You can’t rely on anything.
What are you doing here, I said to Mason and he looked up but his eyes didn’t focus.
Phoebe, said Emmy, and in my head I said: Yes, right, two gold stars, it’s me, and: What are you doing here, drinking with my addict brother at a bar full of people half your age, or at least several years younger?
Out loud I said: Hi, Emmy.
What are you doing here? asked Mason. How’d you get in?
I realized I was still holding the door open. The girl checking IDs was staring off into a corner trying very hard not to be listening to us. I let go and the door eased closed, blocking out the noise from the bar. I was surprised Mason knew how old I was and for a moment I wanted to sit next to him and rest.
We all stood there not looking at each other’s eyeballs. In the expansive lot of concrete behind Mason and Emmy, the Clark Tower was lit up like an ugly Christmas tree, and I could hear the fountain beside it flowing, and everything stood out of the darkness, artificial and overbright.
Who you here with? Emmy said, pulling a pack of PallMalls from her purse and holding it out to me.
Mason stared at his cigarette and tapped his foot on the paver stones.
Gabby Schultz, I said. I lit a cigarette and blew the smoke toward Mason. She’s my roommate, I said, claiming her. Fuck you, Emmy, I thought. You can’t have all my people.
I bet your friends are missing you, said Mason.
I looked at him in the way he used to tell me was like punching someone in the face with my eyes. He was proud of me for how I could do that; it made him laugh.
I’m gonna go pee, said Emmy and she swung the door open and the noise rushed out and then faded again and Mason and I were standing there, smoking shitty cigarettes. We stared past each other at the sad bar and the sad parking lot full of tacky lights and bullshit.
I’m sorry I didn’t call more, said Mason. I can tell you're pissed at me. He looked at me with big eyes and put his hands on his knee — he wore a look that I recognized from our dad that says: Are we done? Can we be done?
I burned him with my cigarette then. I leaned forward to say something to him and the words wouldn’t come so I just did it a little: The cherry to the back of his arm — smell and recoil of singed hair. He hissed and pulled away and put a hand over the blister but didn’t make much of a fuss and moved kind of slow so that’s how I knew. Fuck you, I said. I don’t know why I’m
even talking to you, you’re loaded.
I went inside into the rush of voices and hot recycled air and smoke and the yells of sports fans. Gabby was standing on the pool table swaying to the music in her head and a big bartender was trying to get her down. Emmy was standing by the bathroom door with a hand over her mouth, shaking with laughter, and Lane had her purse clutched under one arm and her hands clasped in front of her chest and was talking to the pretty blue-eyed bartender very earnestly. I went and said some things to him too and he recognized me and Gabby climbed down and it was all fine.
I thought that was the end of the night but it wasn’t at all. The three of us got home and spilled out of Lane’s giant Yukon and went through the back gate into Gabby’s room because she doesn’t mind if we smoke back there. (I don’t know when the garage became so firmly hers, but it has happened.) We melted into the leather couches and Lane packed a bowl and Gabby held out an orange pack of Pall Malls, same as Emmy’s. I took one and we turned on the TV, muted it, and put on some music. It was nice. Then Gabby was on her phone tapping her thumbs so fast over the screen you could hear her raggedy nails clicking against it and then boom, she conjured Emmy and Mason out of nowhere like magic: the gate clanged open and they were at the door.
Winston scooted under the couch, growling and shivering, just his little black fan tail sticking out and Emmy was so loud I was afraid he was going to pee from fear and Mason trailed behind her like the fish at the end of a line. I hoped Gabby had been able to refill Winston’s prescription and started feeling pretty shitty and wondered if I could sneakily go to the house and get one of his pills to feed him, surreptitious like, but then if he were already dosed I could very well kill him. So I just sat there, chain smoking until my lungs burned and my mouth tasted like garbage and I felt overall stuck in a shitty situation. Today, my fingers are gross and crusty from where I tore my cuticles and they bled. So quick, everything changes.
What are we doing, Emmy said. She’d sat next to me so our thighs were touching and she put her arm over the back of the sofa, basically pinning me on the end next to the big overstuffed arm. Then Gabby sat down on the other side of her and Emmy scooted toward the middle and I could breathe again.
Chillin, Gabby said. She smiled a blurry smile and pulled her legs onto the couch, curling them up.
Emmy took Gabby’s cigarettes off the coffee table and lit one. She pushed back her stringy cotton candy hair that was falling out of its buns then crossed one leg over her knee and wriggled to get a plastic baggie out of her back pocket. She held up the baggie, powdered on the inside and a thin layer of crystals at the bottom like fairy dust, and asked if we wanted to get high. Lane got really stiff and went to the house to get everyone water. Gabby shrugged. I glanced at Mason from under my hair and he was sitting with his hands on his knees, tapping his feet fast and nodding his head to the music, just missing the beat.
I always thought meth was a drug for people who lived in the middle of nowhere and got married when they were sixteen and had nothing to do but look at all the empty space: big dirt fields swirling with dust and the big open sky above them full of twinkling stars and the sucking gaps between them.
But I didn’t want to say that so I said, Yes, please.
Emmy put the powder on a little folded up pocket of tin foil and held a lighter under it and we all sucked up some smoke through one of those wide red Sonic straws that had been cut down to size. It was terrible and it smelled like burnt plastic and lighter fluid and I hated it, but Gabby rocketed off to some other world, lit and glass-eyed, little white teeth shining. She kept touching everyone and everything in quick succession.
I held Emmy’s hand and squeezed and talked very fast and waited for it to be over and kept smoking weed hoping that it would help. But it was just like a thousand icicles hanging over my brain, radiating cold and falling every now and then, needle sharp and freezing, aching — the weed just floated fog around the icicles so I couldn’t see them coming. It was like that for a long while and then we realized Lane had never come back.
Emmy went to get her and when they came back Emmy had the red kettle and mugs whose handles she’d looped her finger through. Lane had a big pot of cheesy rice and a handful of plastic spoons. She put everything on the table on a folded dish towel and told us not to touch the pot. Even though no one was hungry I sat on the floor and ate tiny bites right out of the pot because she’d given it to us like she was sure it would help everything. I sipped some tea hoping to melt the icicles in my brain.
That’s when Mason got up and walked outside. I stood to follow him and my blood whooshed around my body raising a ripple of goosebumps that felt something like courage.
He leaned against the garage under the overhang where we keep a row of stools. I climbed onto one and folded my legs and almost fell. I touched the wall to balance. With one arm crossed over his chest and his head down, a cigarette hanging from his mouth, Mason looked like a sad imitation of the Marlboro man. There was a neat shiny red circle on his arm from my cigarette and the hibiscus flowers had browned and drooped because we forgot to water them.
So you’re just never gonna talk about it? I said.
What do you mean?
Why you left.
Not much to say. She kicked me out and filed for divorce. My job went to shit. It would have been more trouble than it was worth to deal with immigration. He flicked his cigarette away and I watched it burning on the concrete and wished he’d stomp it out.
That’s not what I mean, I said.
He sighed and put the heels of his hands to his eyes and stood up straight. I hopped off my stool and moved so my body was between him and the garage door.
What do you want? he said.
Just tell me what happened.
He made a groaning in the back of this throat that he’s done since he was little when he’s frustrated at something. Haven’t you ever needed to get away? he said.
I thought: We were all carriage horses. Strapped in between those poles and lugging dead weight. Until you bolted and left me standing there with splintered wood and double the load.
I didn’t say any of that about horses or blinders but I wish I had. What I said was: You completely fucked me over.
Mason said: Grow up, Phoebe. You could’ve called me. You could just call Mom if you wanted to, you know? You’re gonna be fucking miserable your whole life if you just keep moaning about everything.
I opened my mouth to answer but he beat to it, he said: I left you, you’re right. You’d be better off if you left for a while too.
Then he went inside, and the wood door into the garage crashed shut behind him, shaking on its hinges.
My brain’s a stunted peanut rattling in its shell.
My legs hurt and my eyes might fall out of my head.
For some reason, I keep remembering a party I went to in seventh grade where I let Jordan Thomas finger me by the pool and thinking that is probably when everything fell apart irrevocably. There’s a wasp crawling over my desk and I keep trying to hit it with this copy of Scientific American my dad gave me, and missing, and the smack when I hit the desk hurts my head. I see the fireflies coming out through my window and I’m thinking I may just go to sleep now if the buzzing in my nerves will quiet. It’s too bad that it can’t stay twilight forever and not get full dark.
I haven’t talked to Mason in a week. I ignore my dad’s calls. I saw Karen early this morning and it was like this:
She says, How are you doing? and I say, I’m fine, I’m doing fine, mostly the same. And she says, What does that mean, the same? Same as what? And I think Fuck you, Karen.
I say: I mean I have been following all your rules. (This is a lie, Karen’s rules are ridiculous.)
Good, she says.
Then forty-eight more minutes. Of her asking me questions and nodding at the answers like they’re foregone conclusions, the next step in a flowchart on the shrink-clipboard she doesn’t even have. It goes on like that. The whole time, I play with one of those toys that’s like a plastic tube of goo that’s always slipping through your hands. It’s frustrating and satisfying and kind of erotic and I like how it’s more than one thing.
How has it been, having your brother home? she asks.
I stare at the sparkly green goo and let it slide through my hands and fall to the ground.
I watch her scribble mental notes on her invisible clipboard.
I pick up my goo tube. I consider asking Karen about the dearth of framed pictures on her desk. Where’s the husband, Karen? I might say. The baby, the high school graduation? Where’s the smiling dog that fills the empty nest, hmmm? Her desk bears a permanent kind of emptiness that we don’t ever talk about because that is not the dynamic my dad has paid for and it would be inappropriate.
She asks to see my journals.
Can I see yours?
Phoebe, she says.
Karen, I say.
The goo falls through my hands again and rolls under the couch.
A timer on her phone goes off and we’re done.
I went to the Fox yesterday by myself and ended up going home with the bartender with the pretty eyes. Later he texted me and asked me what I was reading. He told me he’s reading a book called Secret Life of Plants and I should read it too and so I found a pdf online and read it and its all about how plants are conscious and respond to our thoughts and intentions and how basically — I’m saying it better than the author did, I won’t lie — we aren’t equipped to measure or study this because since we are dealing with conscious life, it is a social science which is already muddied and inexact when dealing with human sentience, let alone something that operates on a completely decentralized and novel biochemical basis. If I didn’t say it better, I at least said it quicker. It was too long, that was the problem with that book.
That’s not even the point, the point is he kept asking me about what I was reading and acting like he really liked me and that made me angry and here’s why: all he knows about me is that I drink Miller Light, and I love to wear my own skin. When we were at his place he didn’t ask me what movie I wanted to watch or if I liked the movie we were watching (I didn’t — some documentary about The Beatles). He didn’t introduce me to his friend who stopped by to buy weed, and I had to remind everyone I was there which I hate, but it’s better than sitting their like furniture and starting to believe it. And so even if it turns out he really likes me once he gets to know me, and I like him or get confused and think that I do, it’s all going to be colored by his initial impression of my nice ass and willingness to let him come on my tits and the impressive way I sucked his weird crooked dick, and then, time will pass and my tits will sag and I will get wrinkled and, if at that point I still care what he thinks at all, I’ll become jealous of the way he looks at other women and this will lead me to behave in ways I do not wish to behave and that he will find unattractive, and by this point, due to years of indentured servitude, I may very well have become someone who cares deeply about what he does and does not find attractive even though I have become long since repulsed by his stringy ponytail and crooked dick that hardly even gets hard anymore. We will destroy each other.
I told him I was reading There Eyes Were Watching God, but I wasn’t. I was re-reading the fourth Harry Potter because that is my favorite one and I always cry when Cedric Diggory dies. If he thinks he can have my secrets he is wrong. I will not see him again.
III. Sweet Dreams and Goodnight
Once upon a time there was a pixie who lived with a nameless wolf in a great hollow tree in the middle of a forest full of great big trees. Wide spaces gapped the trees; trunks rose like shining silver columns in a shaded hall. The pixie lined her hollow tree with furs, and left bowls of fruit juice to lure the giant fireflies that lived in the woods in vacated beehives, and if you walked through that forest at night you’d see her tree glow from a long way off.
Pine needles carpeted the forest floor even though the trees weren’t pines. That’s just the way it was. The trees had floppy leaves as big as cafe tables and soft as velum and they fell only every ten years, drifting to the ground like heavy lone wings, landing with a flump. The trees bore tiny fruits like muscadines with fatty seeds inside, and the fruit tasted like how the ocean should, but sweeter.
The little pixie didn’t have wings but she could scale the tree trunks by means of special boots that gave her traction. She harvested the fruit at night by the light of giant fireflies — stuck plump round fruits in a canvas bag she wore over her shoulder, and that was all she ate. Her sharp white teeth pierced the skin and juice dripped down her chin and over her hands and she licked them clean.
In the daytime she rode the wolf along secret paths through the trees that only they knew. She looked for fallen leaves and when she found them she stopped where she was and painted stories on them with paint she made from crushed red stones and the oil from the seeds of the fruit. She carried the paint in her canvas bag along with brushes she made from split twigs from the great big trees. She always felt better when the painted stories were finished. She left them on the forest floor to rot or be read or whatever. She never slept.
But then something happened and the fruit stopped growing. Day after day the pixie climbed, higher and higher to where the branches grew thin and far apart, and her arms and legs shook when she tried to crawl across them. But she found only a few pieces of fruit, and those were rotting on their stems: pecked by birds, hollowed by worms, angry insects buzzing around them. She grew weak and hungry but what she really worried about were the seeds and how now she had no oil to make her paint. She tried to mix the crushed red rock with water but it didn’t hold: the color was thin and runny, and the stories that wanted to be painted were all caught inside her, pressing on the backs of her eyes and blurring her vision, filling her head with frantic music that dribbled out her mouth but never sounded like song.
One day she found a sharp piece of rock by the stream that ran through the woods and she cut the tip of her finger and used it as a brush and it eased the pressure in her eyes and she let out a sigh. She turned all her fingers to brushes til they ran dry and then she laid open her wrists and dipped her fingers in the springs and let the stories come hard and fast until she slipped away. She crumpled on the pine needles and the wolf ate her because he knew that’s what she would’ve wanted.
All those leftover stories lived in the wolf and didn’t bother him too much except to make him a little twitchy because wolves are less susceptible to these things. He spent the rest of his life in the hollow tree, waiting for someone who wanted the stories that he held for his friend. No one came. The stories coursed through his blood and into his skeleton, and if you were to dig up his bones — he’s long dead, of course — and look with a magnifying glass, you’d see them told in pictures, etched in the grooves where the tissue knit together and hardened: a little tiny pixie climbing great big trees in a great big forest, looped by the mote of a great big river; a village miles away where wolves are slaughtered and eaten, and up in the sky, on the thickest cloud, a clutch of blackbirds, eating stolen corn and laying golden eggs, teasing water vapor into nests.
Those were the things she’d wanted to show before the fruit all died and the paint ran out; simple things worth seeing, or not. Now you know.
Today I saw Karen again even though it wasn’t time yet — my dad said I have to go to family dinner tomorrow, and I called and called Karen’s office until finally she called me back and said: You’re in luck, I have a cancellation.
When I got to her office, my brain felt like a wrung sponge and I tried to explain to her what was happening in it but she said I wasn’t making any sense and she looked bored, like she wasn’t even writing on her mental notepad.
I played with my green goo toy and squeezed it hard until Karen said: You’re gonna pop it. I replaced it on the table and pulled a pillow into my lap, picking at the edges. I just worry about the gaps, I said. The soft edges of things. I plucked at the piping until a thread came loose and I tugged on it but it stuck. Do you know what I mean? I asked her.
Not really, she said. Can you say more.
I shook my head. That little blue stone was stuck at the base of my throat and wouldn’t go up or down no matter how I breathed.
When the buzzer on Karen’s phone went off and I left without saying goodbye. I sat in my car in the parking lot for a long time, listening to a CD of waves and whale songs. I’m supposed to write about my mom, Karen says. I don’t have much to say. She left when I was twelve, and she lives in Arizona. She is married to a man she met at a self-help seminar, and they have a lot of dreamcatchers and crystals and they keep chickens in their yard. I visited once, a year after she left, and for the few days I was there, I gathered the eggs in the morning when they were still warm. The eggs were all different shapes and sizes, little blue ones and big brown ones, but they all tasted the same. She came to my high school graduation and gave me a sparkling gold bracelet with my name on it. She always showed up like that, in flashes, with nothing in between. I cared about these things very much once.
In an effort to distract myself from the impending family dinner, I took Gabby for tacos. We shared a big cheese dip, and she talked about her family and how much she misses her mom and her stepdad but that she won’t go back, and I didn’t want to pry but also I didn’t want her to think I didn’t care, so I kept saying half-things like: Do you think you’ll…? or Did he ever…? And that seemed to be enough to keep her going. We were having such a successful time I invited her to family dinner.
So she came to my dad’s house and we all ate together in the sunroom and it was very pleasant. Gabby talked about art and consciousness and everyone pretended to follow along and my dad was clearly torn between liking her for being so pretty and tiny and looking down on her for being so flighty — not a good influence on me, potential-wise. After all, I cannot become any tinier or prettier by association. I need friends with work ethics. But he was nice, it all went well, and she and I ended up staying after we’d all finished dinner and carried the plates to the kitchen. I washed while Gabby rinsed and Mason dried and dad wandered around checking the level of our wine glasses and saying wise things until his eyes got heavy and he sat at the kitchen table for a few minutes, munching on a bowl of peanuts and finishing off his glass. Then he said, I’m beat like a drum kids. He got up real slow in a way that made me remember that his birthday is coming up and that he will be sixty and then of course, later, he’ll die.
So he went to bed and we put away all the dishes we could figure out where they went and stacked the rest on the counter because it seemed better than guessing at where things belong in someone else’s kitchen. We went back to the TV room and watched a documentary about animals that evolved in caves so their eyes got covered in thin white skin and they just creep around in all this sulfuric acid water with their giant blind eyes. Maybe bumping into each other every once in a while. Maybe not. Gabby didn’t want to leave when I was ready and told me to leave her so I did.
Gabby came home this morning and thanked me for sleeping in the back with Winston. I expected to be angry at her but I wasn’t. I still acted like it a little because I had that card to play and was bored. Gabby took me out for breakfast to make up for it and told me Mason farts in his sleep and has nightmares that make him kick, but she kind of likes him. If she were a planet and most of her were atmosphere (which is what Gabby would be: a miniature Neptune or something like that), she seemed this morning like her clouds were held more firmly to the core than on most days, like she was losing less and less to the vacuum. I’m happy for her.
IV. Sweet Dreams and Goodnight: An Addendum
I guess really this raises the questions that some of you may be asking yourselves right now: why exactly did the fruit stop growing? (To be sure, there are other questions: why couldn't she carve the stories into tree trunks, why couldn’t she ride the wolf to the village and ask to borrow a pencil, why couldn’t she pace herself with the blood, and actually would blood make
very good ink anyway?)
The fruit stopped growing because in the village outside the forest on the other side of the great mote river that just flowed round and round swallowing its own tail everyday, in the village they were fucking everything up.
When the village was first settled they had chosen the spot based on a heavy thrumming buzz that one of their children heard from a long way off and followed through the trees that were the children of the trees of the great big forest and were not so very big. The sun shone through their spindly branches and cast polka dot shadows around their big frumpy leaves that hung from them like the awkward outsized limbs of teenagers. The child followed the thrumming to a clearing where a hive hung from a bent bow, and all around it droned heavy throbbing wasps, flitting in and out of the hive, taking turns at the door and darting about their business. The child, having no experience with wasps, got stung and died because it was allergic and this was far away from and well before Epipens. The child’s parents were leaders of the community and they didn’t want to leave the body and they didn’t want to move it from where it fell because this was a custom among the people—the belief that the soul left slowly (not as slowly in children, but still not a thing to be rushed) and that if you moved the body too far from where it fell you ran the risk of tearing the soul and fucking up it’s chances of moving on, whole. Best to leave things where they fall.
The parents spoke in hushed voiced under the thrumming wasps nest. They walked hand in hand in a widening spiral around their child and their last circle brushed them tangentially against the great mote river and they said wow what a great place for a village, lets stop here. But they moved a few miles off from the bank because of the great towering trees on the far side of the water and the red eyes they saw gleaming out of the darkness when the sun began to sink.
They went back to their people and said, Look, it really looks like this is how it’s supposed to be. Between the heavy thrum of the wasp, and the collapse of our child, and the freshwater and the spiral path we felt compelled to walk all day, well it really seems we are meant to build here. These things are signs.
I guess that doesn’t explain the fruit, does it? Maybe the parents went on a revenge wasp killing spree and it turns out the wasps were the pollinators. I don’t have the answers here. You have to wait for things that sometimes never come. Stop listening to static. That’s another thing that Karen told me the other day. I have explained the way I get lost in my head in loops like the narrowing base of a tornado, and I see in her eyes that she is disappointed in me. She thought I was going to be a genuine crazy person, something to write home about, but I’m just a regular person, it turns out, who can’t handle regularity with poise. Stop listening to the static she told me. She got that line from a TV show but I let it slide because I could see she was proud of herself and I figured one of us should walk out of there feeling good. I’m trying to do my best.
So ok. My mom was fucking this guy, she left us for him and stayed gone. There. It was when she left that I got more scared all the time, and it was after I got more scared all the time that I started imagining voices from not enough sleep and too many thoughts and drugs and it was after that I tried to die, and Mason left, and I got better for a whiile, then I went to away to college and got unbetter and came home and now here I am. That’s causality — it’s critical — but it’s not the same as fault. Plus my mom made me smocked dresses when I was little and homemade Halloween costumes and she poked holes in jar lids so I’d have a safe place to keep my bug friends and she came to all the kid stuff at school. She was great and then she was gone. I don’t know. If I were four and she were to read this she’d say, Good trying, Phoebe. She’d write a note telling Karen I had done my best.
I guess Gabby and Mason are fucking regularly now. She stays over their most nights and I sleep in the garage with Winston because he and Mason’s dog don’t get along, and as much as Winston hates everybody, he hates being alone most of all. He can’t come in the house because the windows aren’t covered and the noises aren’t contained. I watch the TV on mute while Winston sits hunkered in a corner growling at me until he goes to sleep in his little donut bed with his head over the edge and his whiskery jowls spread under his face. He is growing on me.
Gabby left a roll of butcher paper and a set of finger paints behind and I figure those are fair game so last night I made a picture of the solar system and gave all the planets and the sun big smiling faces. I painted Winston out on Pluto because I imagine he likes to have space, to feel big, and to look down on everything from an angle. I looked at him in the corner and told him: I’ll try to get them to send your ashes there when the time comes, but I wouldn’t count on it. I tried to pet him and he bit my hand, but didn’t break the skin.
Sometimes you’ll find yourself in a waiting room. Say at Autozone, say you’re waiting to get your oil changed. And there will be another guy waiting and we’ll call him Bill. Bill wants to talk, he’s really sad and he needs someone to listen, and he tells you all about his failed marriage and his troubled childhood and the general emptiness and desperation that fills his day to day life.
You feel the walls closing in because all you want is to read Vogue and for Bill to please shut the fuck up because he is a claustrophobic bummer of a man, and you cannot help him.
No one can help you, Bill, if you will not help yourself.
Then, let’s say, it’s been thirty minutes and that’s what Autozone prides themselves on, the thirty-minute oil change, but the guy working on your car walks in, wiping his hands on a greasy rag and says, Well, we found a problem with the gastrofilter gauge (let’s say that’s a car part), and you have to get it fixed because you’re taking a road trip the next week, you really need to get away, and you realize you will have to sit in this room with Bill for some untold amount of time and you panic.
It was sort of like that. I didn’t want to die. I was just stuck in that room with Bill, but the kicker was I also was Bill, in generic khakis and full of generic sadness. I was just trying to get out of the waiting room, but Mason dragged me back, locked the door and took off with the car. I don’t know, does that make sense?
Once, a long time ago, I was maybe twelve or thirteen, I saw this woman give a talk at the Dixon Gallery about the art she was exhibiting, and most of it was about rivers. She took hollow doors from home depot and sanded them down and sliced them into two layers, then secured the door layers an inch or so apart from one another and jigsawed their wiggly river paths, leaving a snaking negative space behind—the shadows between the two sides of the door. Then she painted the riverscape around it. It was all about scope and scale. After the talk, I stared into the grooves of the rivers and imagined water swelling out of them—that pregnant moment before the surface tension broke and it spilled over the panel—water filled with salt and grit and sand, and flecked with beads of plastic.
I didn’t fill the bathtub that day because I wanted to see the blood run like that, the moment when the tension breaks. I’d say that’s why I lived but the truth is, I just didn’t do a very good job at the whole thing. Anyway I got naked and I got in the tub and I laid my veins open longways like you’re supposed to and felt my hands and feet going numb and it hurt and when Mason got there I was dreamy but I remember it. I remember floating in the corner above the bathroom door and looking down on myself and thinking: I look like those paintings should have, like rivers overflowing. I was beautiful. He tied hand towels around my wrists like bows.
These smears of moments. I don’t know. Does any of that make sense to you?
I texted the bartender from Fox and the Hound and asked him what he was reading and we talked for a long time. It turns out he started a local production company and is big into the art scene here — he texted me pictures of his paintings. He has house parties that are also canned food drives and just basically does all this shit to try to make the world better. He asked me what I do like it was just a given that I do things, so I gave him a bunch of stories I had from Mason and his friends when they were in high school and hoped this guy didn’t know any of them, and if he did he was polite enough not to say and to pretend he believed me. I told him what I’m reading; it’s The Awakening which I had to read in high school, and which he said he has not read. It’s very French I told him. Very French and very sad. With water. He sent back a winky face emoji and asked me to get lunch with him at Holiday Ham.
But as it turns out: I like the bartender’s only ok paintings. I don’t like his voice or the smell of him — old spice and chlorine — or the way his skin feels on mine. The paintings made things confusing for a second but I’ve figured it out.
My mom sewed our clothes by hand. She spent months making Mason a bat Halloween costume and then the week before Halloween he tried it on, looked in the mirror, and howled because he scared himself. She took him to Party City and bought him a clown wig. I don’t remember this but she used to tell the story a lot, she thought it was hilarious and no hard feelings. She made delicious homemade bread and loved for everything to be ok. She’d bend a lot of different ways to make everything be ok, a contortionist she was, thriving in the abstract. She now has a shop on Etsy making soft children's toys: mermaids and octopuses and bright yellow giraffes with limp limbs. She’s out there in the world with a skein of yarn and a crochet hook but when she comes up (she doesn’t come up much) we talk about her like she’s dead. No, I don’t know why she left. I believe she was very sad, and one day she realized it, and the all the lights blinked out at once. I can relate to this.
Finally a Postscript: Hello and Goodbye.
I haven’t written in a while. I told Karen I’m going to send this to you, and she said I should think on it, but so far as I can tell thinking on it has been my problem all along. I already have everything nicely typed and one of those “If it fits it ships” boxes ready. Don’t worry if you didn’t feel like reading it — if you didn’t get this far. It’s yours to do with as you please and that includes confetti. Dad is fine I think, and Mason swears he clean. Gabby moved out. One morning I came out of my room and the red kettle was missing from the stove and Winston was missing from the garage. I haven’t seen her, but maybe Mason has. He and I don’t talk much and have realized we have very little in common that doesn’t sting. I told dad I need a break from phone calls and family dinners and he was sad but it’s been ok. I have been spending time with Emmy and we talk carefully around Mason, but it makes it feel like he’s not all the way gone from me. She and I go on hikes in the day time, and sometimes Lane comes. When I can’t sleep Emmy comes over and we smoke cigarettes in the garage and talk about everything.
Emmy and I watched a movie last night that started with how big the solar system is, the galaxy, the space between galaxies. What I’m taking about is most of everything: the vast amounts of empty space with tiny lights sprinkled around that flicker and fade in an instant. It kept zooming the picture out and zooming the picture out and we all blurred and disappeared (in my head I mean — on the screen we were never even there), and I held my breath the whole time, thinking we never really see anything directly, just glimpses into the past, everything hopelessly removed. Emmy felt me not breathing and reached out and held my hand. I’m a cliche and so am I. We all should have given up after Einstein but the lights are so pretty, like fireflies, like flickering ghosts in the woods. Anyway, I’d like to thank you for the good times, and for hair that doesn’t get frizzy when it rains.
DEVAN DEL CONTE is a native Memphian who lives in midtown with her two dogs. She attended University of Memphis where she received her BS in Physics and her MFA in Creative Writing. During her MFA, Devan served as an editorial assistant, fiction editor, and contest coordinator for The Pinch Literary Journal. Her stories have been published in UofM Magazine and Hawaii Pacific Review.