Prime Number Magazine, Issue 137, Jul – Sep 2018
Selected by Jeffrey Condran
Followed by Bio and Q&A
The pulsing on Marcia’s chin told her the pimple she’d felt forming under the surface the night before had probably erupted through her skin while she slept. She resisted the urge to touch it, to verify what she already knew would be there: a soft, tender nodule which would surely look red and infected. She climbed out of bed and sat staring at the closed door that separated her small bedroom from the small hallway that led to her roommate’s small bedroom and their shared bathroom. I am thirty-eight today, she thought.
Her reflection in the streaky bathroom mirror confirmed the worst. The pimple was inflamed and enormous, almost the size of a dime at its base, and though she knew it was probably a trick of the light, it appeared to be visibly throbbing. After spending her teen years and most of her adulthood with severe, cystic acne, Marcia had believed she finally exchanged the need for all those drying acne treatments with the need for equally drying wrinkle creams. She didn’t have any benzoyl peroxide on hand, nor even any concealer, both facts which would have seemed like a siren song to fate a few short years ago. She turned her chin up towards the mirror to get a better look. Thirty-eight, she thought. When she walked into the kitchen fifteen minutes later, her face washed, and her thin, blonde hair pulled into a tight knot, she thought about saying it out loud to her roommate, Dan: I am thirty-eight today.
When she walked in, Dan was rinsing out his coffee mug, a practice Marcia had always found unsanitary. It would take maybe thirty extra seconds to actually wash it with soap and a sponge, but Dan seemed to believe a quick rinse was sufficient. Were Dan and Marcia in a romantic relationship, Marcia would say something. As it was, Marcia didn’t feel it was her place, so instead of speaking up, she surreptitiously washed Dan’s coffee mug for him once a week or so, after he’d gone to work.
She watched Dan shake droplets of water from his mug before placing it upside down in the dish drain. She thought about saying the words again: Today, I am thirty-eight, or maybe even just, It’s my birthday. Instead, she asked him, “Want to have lunch this afternoon?”
“Can’t.” He wiped the excess water from his hands on the front of his pants. Jesus, Dan, she thought, there’s a towel right there. “Having lunch with a client.”
“Oh,” she said. “Maybe dinner, then.”
“Maybe,” he said, but his tone told her the prospect was unlikely.
After Dan left for work, Marcia poured herself a bowl of cereal and ate it slowly, staring at the wall. Why hadn’t she just told him it was her birthday? Better yet, why hadn’t she told him days ago, when the big day was still on the horizon? It’s not like she hadn’t been thinking about it, been wondering whether Dan might remember, might get her a present, surprise her with a cake. They’d known each other for four years now. It was long enough to remember each other’s birthday. Marcia knew it was long enough, because she remembered Dan’s: March 28.
Marcia wondered how her life would be different if she and Dan had both been single when they’d met. It was something she wondered about often. Would they have begun dating instead of initiating a clumsy friendship? Would he remember her birthday now? Things between them had seemed only to get more awkward when both Marcia and Dan had found themselves single a week apart. They’d both taken up residence in an extended-stay motel, by sheer coincidence just four doors apart. It had made sense, they agreed, to find an apartment together, and after that it had seemed ever less likely that anything beyond an arm’s length friendship might develop between the two of them. Marcia assumed Dan believed it wouldn’t be a good idea.
Marcia finished her cereal and stood up to wash the bowl. I am not in love with my roommate, she told herself, and it was true: she wasn’t. Still, sometimes she had to remind herself. Like when Dan would surprise her with his homemade lasagna, just when she felt she would rather starve than make dinner, or when she’d notice him noticing another woman and feel an unexpected flush rise to her cheeks.
But she didn’t love him, not in the romantic sense. He’d become a close friend over the years, it was true, but it was a kind of closeness based on proximity more than anything. They didn’t tell each other personal things, knew very little about each other’s pasts. When Dan’s parents came to visit, they stayed at a hotel, and if they’d stopped by to see the apartment, they’d done so when Marcia had been at work. She hadn’t met them. When Marcia’s sister had flown in for the weekend once, Dan had introduced himself simply as “the roommate” before absenting himself from the apartment for the majority of Cynthia’s stay.
Still, Dan was the only person Marcia felt any real connection to anymore. She enjoyed his company and was glad that both their relationships had fallen apart when they did. She was glad Dan had brought up the idea of living together. She was glad that, in her late thirties, with no pets and no lovers and a brittle connection to her family, she had someone to sit and watch Netflix with at the end of the day.
On her way to the bus, Marcia allowed herself to daydream about a birthday surprise. What if Dan was only pretending not to know? What if he’d bought her some cupcakes—no, tulips, thirty-eight of them—and had had them delivered to Marcia’s office? She knew it was farfetched, so she only let herself think about it for the four blocks it took to get to the bus stop. As she climbed on the bus, she tucked the delusion away.
The bus was abnormally crowded, and at first Marcia didn’t know if she would be able to find a seat. She was scanning the seats searching for a vacancy when a woman near the back lifted her hand in the air. “There’s a spot right here.”
Marcia paused when she reached the back and saw that the woman, who was shifting an overstuffed canvas bag from the vacant seat onto the floor, held in her lap a fat, drooling baby. Marcia glanced around the bus again, hoping there might be another empty seat she’d missed, but the bus lurched forward and Marcia pitched back, then stumbled into the seat.
“Don’t worry,” the woman told Marcia. “He never fusses on the bus.’
“Oh,” Marcia said, debating whether to pretend she hadn’t been worried and deciding against it. “Thanks.”
The baby watched Marcia with red, puffy eyes. Marcia smiled at him, and he twisted around and buried his face in his mother’s shirt.
“Shh,” the woman said softly, stroking the baby’s wispy hair. “It’s okay.”
“I guess I make him nervous,” Marcia said.
“He’s just coming into that stranger anxiety stage,” the woman said.
“I think I’m still in that stage myself,” Marcia said, but the woman didn’t laugh.
Marcia swiped her phone on and opened Facebook. She knew she could count on, if nothing else, a birthday wish from her mom there. When she’d gone to college, her mom had called on her birthday, but over time the calls had turned into texts. Now, her mom wrote a message on her Facebook wall, sometimes accompanied with a gif of a kitten pouncing onto a birthday cake, or a cartoon frog dancing in a party hat.
There it was: happy birthday sweetie
All lower case and no punctuation, as if Marcia wasn’t worth the time it took to hit the extra keys. There were eleven other posts too, all saying variations of the same thing. Twelve birthday wishes total, but it was still morning yet. She wondered if she would get one from Dan by the end of the day, but he seldom checked Facebook anymore.
Marcia slid her phone into her purse and nodded at the baby. “How old is he?”
The baby turned his head again and stared at Marcia. He had intense, blue eyes and round, chapped cheeks. Marcia waved at him. He looked from her hands back to her face, then reached out and grasped onto her pimple. Marcia winced.
The woman batted the baby’s hand away. “Nonononononono. We don’t . . . no.” The woman avoided eye contact with Marcia as she said, “I’m so sorry.”
The pain had caused Marcia’s eyes to water, but she quickly brushed the wetness away. “It’s fine. He’s just exploring.” She looked at the baby and said in a lulling tone, “It’s just a pimple, isn’t that right? People get pimples sometimes.”
The woman visibly relaxed. She reached into her bag and rummaged inside with one hand until she pulled out a rattle. The baby’s eyes widened and his mouth gaped open into a broad grin as the woman gave the rattle a fierce shake then pressed it into his tiny hands. He squealed, then brought the rattle to his mouth and began to suck noisily.
Marcia watched the whole scene with detached curiosity—that such a tiny, inconsequential gift could make the boy’s eyes light up so. The baby saw her watching and pulled the rattle out of his mouth long enough to blow a raspberry in her direction.
“Ah-boo,” the mother mimicked, repositioning the baby’s weight on her lap.
“Ah-boooooooooo,” the baby said, eyes still locked on Marcia’s.
“He wants you to do it back to him,” the mother said, still avoiding looking directly at Marcia.
“Ah-boooooooooo,” the baby said, holding out his rattle and deliberately dropping it on the floor.
“Ah-boo,” Marcia said.
The baby squealed.
Marcia picked up the rattle and shook it at the baby.
“He likes you,” the mother said. “You must be a good person. He can tell.”
When Marcia arrived at the office, she was half-expecting a surprise birthday card or a cake. Something. Some of her coworkers were “friends” on Facebook. Maybe somebody had noticed. If they had, nobody said anything, and Marcia made her way to her desk with little more than the ordinary “Morning” and “How’s it going?” All morning, her focus kept drifting from the forms it was her job to check and double-check. She kept finding herself compelled to pull up Facebook to see if anyone new had wished her a happy birthday. She couldn’t explain it, but she felt sure that any minute, Dan would post, or somebody interesting, and if she wasn’t waiting for somebody interesting, perhaps something. She had a strange, expectant feeling in her stomach, some kind of psychic energy, she thought, not that she really believed in that sort of thing. Still, it was her birthday, and the baby on the bus had deemed her worthy.
That fat-cheeked, bubble-blowing baby—so ugly, the way all babies are when you don’t have any connection to them or their parents, yet for some reason Marcia could almost giggle at the thought of his graceless attempt at flirting. Babies are drawn to people who are more objectively attractive—she remembered reading that somewhere—something about symmetry in the face. And even if that was so much nonsense, someone had once told Marcia that children can see into your soul. They see things adults miss, pick up on cues, so when a child likes you, it means more than when a grown-up does. Plus, children love selflessly and without fear of the consequences. A child can love purely, solely because you make him laugh, or because your grilled cheese sandwiches are the gooiest inside. They cut to the heart of things, kids. They don’t get caught up in your mistakes.
When she was a child herself, Marcia had believed she would have a baby of her own one day. It wasn’t so much a desire as an assumption. When the time was right, when she had settled down, when she met the perfect man and married and bought a home. But none of those prerequisites had quite gotten around to happening, and now, at thirty-eight, she understood without ever having consciously realized it, it was probably too late. Maybe that was why she couldn’t get that ruddy-faced bus baby off her mind. But that was stupid. She didn’t feel she had missed out on some great adventure by not having a child, and it wasn’t like the opportunity had never presented itself. It wasn’t like she regretted not taking the chance when she had it. It was just the framework of it all, the pimple and the birthday and the lack of anyone actually saying the words, “Happy birthday. I’m glad you’re alive.” That and the fact that the baby somehow knew she was good.
By lunch, still no one in the office had discovered it was Marcia’s birthday, so Marcia decided to take herself out for a birthday lunch: some Chinese, maybe even a Cinnabon, at the mall. When she’d been in her twenties, she’d gotten herself into trouble with credit card debt and, ever since she’d rebuilt her credit score to something passable, she tried her best to avoid the mall. But it was, after all, her birthday, and there was a strange sort of pleasure in the garbage only mall food courts could get away with serving.
The noodles were greasy and delicious, the Cinnabon, a giant, 800-calorie piece of heaven. Birthday cake had nothing on this. Marcia ate deliberately, chewing slowly to make the calories count. After lunch, she followed the vibrant yellow signs indicating the mall walkers’ lap. She told herself she was doing it to burn off some of the calories she’d just consumed. She walked by the Victoria’s Secret without giving it a second glance, even passed by Elder Beerman and Deb’s. She fought the urge to pop into the Hallmark store—she was a sucker for Itty Bitties—but she checked the time on her phone and convinced herself not to waste any of her five remaining minutes before she had to head back to the office.
After she slid her phone back into her purse, her eyes were drawn to something shiny at a nearby jewelry kiosk: a golden bangle with a large, emerald-colored heart dangling from its center. It reminded her of the bangles her grandmother used to wear. Marcia remembered the coziness of Nana’s living room, Nana’s mildly rose-scented skin. Marcia used to sit on Nana’s lap as they watched reruns of Lawrence Welk, Nana’s fingers smoothing Marcia’s hair, her bangles clicking softly against each other. Tingles would spread from somewhere inside Marcia’s brain outward, and she never knew if it was the sound of the bangles or the feeling of Nana’s gentle strokes that caused it, but nothing in her life had ever given her such pleasure again.
“Lovely, isn’t it?” the woman working the booth asked when she noticed Marcia eyeing the bangle.
“Oh. Yes. It’s nice.” Marcia started to walk away.
“Looking for yourself or as a gift?”
Marcia forced a smile. “A birthday present, I guess. I mean, neither, really. Just killing time.”
“Well, just so you know, everything is 20% off right now.”
“Oh really?” Marcia looked back at the bangle. The heart sparkled beneath the mall’s skylight.
“You came at a good time. Sale ends today.”
“How much is it at 20% off?” Marcia asked.
Marcia recognized the look on the woman’s face. It was the salesperson look of victory. “Only $125. Or you can get three bangles for $300.”
It wasn’t as though Marcia had that much disposable income; $300 was a lot to Marcia. Still, Marcia left with the bangle, and two others, encrusted with tiny crystals, to wear with it, which the woman closed inside a gift box with a bow. Marcia thought about waiting to open the box, dangling it in front of herself as a sort of carrot to get her through the day, but as soon as she stepped through the double doors of the mall’s entrance, she carefully untied the bow and slid the box open. She slid the bangles onto her wrist and admired the way their golden curvature enhanced her slender features. Her whole arm looked prettier, she thought, even her hand. Her fingers, which she often worried were too bony, witch-like, seemed delicate and elegant. She thought she might even have her nails done after work—a French manicure. Why not? It was her birthday, after all. She deserved it.
As she walked back to the office, she noticed the faint clicking as the bangles rattled against each other. It was like a subtle drumbeat turning the meaningless muddle of traffic sounds into music. She had an inkling that she was meant to find these bangles, that fate was at play, although she couldn’t say why purchasing some overpriced jewelry should be so important. Maybe the purchase was significant because it was a sign of how far she’d come, the distance, both literal and figurative, she’d put between her past and today. In fact, it was almost hard to believe, sometimes, that she was the same person she’d once been. When she was with the boyfriend before the one she was living with when she met Dan, she was so passive, so submissive and unsure. On nights when he stayed out late drinking with the guys, she’d fall asleep with the bed and blankets to herself, then wake up to him on top of her. Rather than getting into another fight, she’d pretend to be asleep until he finished, until he grunted in his unappealing way and rolled off of her, falling almost immediately to sleep. Then she’d creep into the bathroom, clean herself off, and sit on the toilet and cry.
That was so long ago now, back in Arizona, back before she’d packed up and moved, without leaving a note. He’d shown up on her mom’s doorstep looking for her, and that was how her family found out she was gone. It was weeks before she’d gotten in touch with her sister, told her she was fine, she’d found a place and a job and everything. She didn’t tell her she had already moved in with a new boyfriend, that she’d remained single for all of six days before rushing, head-first, into what would prove to be a four-year-long rebound relationship. And now, here she was, walking back to work, expensive jewelry hanging from her wrist, which she had bought as a birthday present for herself, thank you very much. It did mean something, didn’t it? It had to.
When she arrived back at the office, she half-expected somebody to notice the bangles, or to at least notice that something seemed different, but nobody did. She knew she shouldn’t be, but she was disappointed. The crystals didn’t sparkle in the fluorescent light the way they had in the sunlight, but still, these bracelets were lovely, just like the sales lady had said. It seemed strange that nobody, not even Jane in accounting, who always wore the most ostentatious jewelry, would notice. Still, she tried not to let it bother her, tried to focus on work.
At 3:00, during her weekly meeting with her supervisor, Marcia found herself gesturing flamboyantly as she spoke, trying to draw Sheryl’s attention to her wrist. At one point, Sheryl’s eyes rested for what seemed to Marcia a prolonged amount of time on the bangles before flitting away again. When the meeting was over and Sheryl reached out to grasp Marcia’s wrist, just above the bracelets, Marcia thought, at last.
“Marsh,” Sheryl said, in a hushed voice, even though her office door was closed and nobody else was in the room. “Can I give you my dermatologist’s name? He’s a miracle worker.”
Marcia’s cheeks grew warm. “Oh,” she said. “Okay.”
“Just from one woman to another,” Sheryl said as she jotted the name on a Post-it. She handed it to Marcia. “I have terrible rosacea, but you’d never know to look at me.”
“Thanks.” The blue ink blurred against the yellow background as she stared at the note. “I’ll look him up.”
“Do it,” Sheryl said. “You are beautiful. Let your beauty shine.”
“Thanks,” Marcia said again, thinking how women never tell each other they’re beautiful when they really are.
And it was then, as she walked back to her desk, that the clicking started to get to her. That clicking—more of a clanking, really—it was so loud, or was it just that the office around her was so quiet? All she could hear was the murmur of voices in the conference room, the gentle clacking of fingers skating across keyboards, and the tick, tick, tick of her bangles, every time she moved.
She listened to the clicking until 5:00, when she headed home. She listened to it on the bus; she listened to it mingle with her footfall on the walk from the bus stop to her apartment complex. She listened to it as she sat at the table, waiting for Dan, wondering if they might have dinner together, if he might have found out about her birthday somehow. She took off the bracelets, laid them on the table in front of her, and poured herself a glass of wine. Under the bright white LED kitchen light, the crystals lost most of their charm. The bangles were still pretty, dainty and sweet, but not worth $300. She wasn’t even sure the heart was a genuine emerald. It looked like it may be made of glass. Marcia wondered if there really had been a sale that ended today. Didn’t mall kiosks run perpetual sales? Perhaps tomorrow, a new sale would have started, a better sale. Perhaps her stumbling upon the bangles wasn’t the kismet it had felt like in the moment.
Before she’d left Arizona, the man before the man before Dan had given her a promise ring, or at least, that’s what he’d called it. Not an engagement ring, he’d said, but a promise to be engaged. When he was ready, he’d said. When he’d had a chance to finish growing up. He’d told her it was expensive, that it was a genuine diamond, but she’d known, even with her limited experience with authentic gemstones, that it was a fake. She didn’t tell him that she knew, or that she didn’t want to put it on because the thought of wearing it made her feel hopeless, even more hopeless than she’d felt when her period had been eight days late. At least then, it had been a sort of secret, a secret she could control. And it wasn’t that she’d ever made the decision to get rid of the baby or anything like that. She hadn’t even made the decision to take a pregnancy test. That, like wearing the ring, would have felt too final. There was freedom in the not-knowing. There was freedom in the fact she could walk all day in the dry Tucson heat. She could walk until she had blisters on her feet and her left sock had sprung a hole, and that night, when she saw the blood on her underwear, she could know that she wasn’t trapped, after all, and that she would never know if she’d even been pregnant, not for sure, and that it didn’t matter anyway because she wasn’t now, nor would she ever let herself be, not by this man.
This emerald, she suddenly felt certain, just like that diamond, wasn’t real. Marcia drained the last of her wine glass in one gulp and refilled it with the remainder of the bottle; then, without thinking, really, without deciding to do it, she brought the bottom of the bottle down, hard, atop the emerald heart. She lifted the bottle up and brought it down again, this time even harder. The heart crunched beneath the weight. She slid the bottle to the center of the table and sat, silently sipping the rest of her wine. When Dan came home, that’s where he found her: alone at the table, in front of a spent bottle of wine and a stack of bent and broken bangles, coated in ethereal green dust.
“Everything okay?” he asked. He rubbed the palm of his right hand over his head, which Marcia knew meant he was anxious.
“Fine,” she said carefully, trying not to slur.
“What happened to your bracelets?” He picked them up. Dislodged crystals rained down and pattered against the table.
She shrugged. “They’re broken.”
“No doubt.” He pulled a chair up and inspected what was left of the bangles.
“It was a birthday present,” Marcia said.
He looked up, one eyebrow raised. “Shit. It’s your birthday.” It wasn’t a question, which she appreciated. He said it like it was something he should have known. “They came in the mail like this?”
“Fucking post office.” He rubbed his head again. “Maybe the package was insured?”
Marcia shook her head.
“Fuck. I’m sorry.” He placed the bangles back on the table gently, as though any further harm could come to them now.
“It’s okay.” She laughed. “It’s kind of funny, really.”
He shook his head. “I mean I’m sorry I didn’t get you anything. Or remember.” He picked up the wine bottle and shook it. “Happy birthday.”
He leaned back in the chair and turned the empty bottle around and around in his hands.
“I’m thirty-eight today,” she told him.
No, you don’t, she wanted to say. “Some baby on the bus thinks I’m a good person,” she said instead.
“Oh?” This time both eyebrows raised. He looked ridiculous.
She laughed. “Have a glass of wine with me,” she said.
He shook the empty bottle again and looked at her, his head cocked. He placed the bottle on the table. “Maybe a glass of water instead.”
“I’m not that drunk,” she said, and as if on cue, the world around her began to spin.
He leaned forward and squeezed her forearm—a quick, gentle pressure, and then his hand was gone, but the warmth of his skin lingered.
“I’m okay,” she said. “I’m going to be okay.” And even though she heard the words bleeding together, even though she felt suddenly overcome with fatigue, she knew as she said it that it was true.
~ ~ ~
Ashley Cowger is the author of the short story collection Peter Never Came, which was awarded the Autumn House Press Fiction Prize. Her short fiction has appeared in several literary journals. She holds an MFA from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and she is an Assistant Teaching Professor at Penn State Harrisburg. Learn more at www.ashleycowger.com
I originally had the inspiration for this story several years ago, when I thought it would be interesting to write a story about a lonely woman who has a meaningful interaction with a baby on a bus. While that element of the story is still there, it has been revised to be a very minor part of a much larger story. This story is a good example of the value of revision—it has been reworked and reworked so many times that it is hardly recognizable from its first draft, but is, as a result of all that work, much stronger.
What book or movie made you cry, or at least weepy?
I cry at many, many, many books and movies. The first book that made me cry was Peter Pan when I was a kid. I cried at the ending, and not just because Wendy and the others grow up. I cried because I had loved the book so, so much and I was so sad that it was over.
What is your favorite band?
My favorite musician is a solo artist: Morrissey. But, obviously, that means I also like the Smiths a lot.
What country have you not visited that is on your bucket list?
I’ve always wanted to visit Ireland. I’ve heard it’s amazingly beautiful and a ton of fun.
Followed by Bio and Q&A
My girlfriend calls my name again. I cringe. I yell back asking her what she wants. She yells that we’re out of toilet paper. I sigh and walk into the kitchen to get her paper towels. I hand it to her through a slit in the door. She takes the roll of paper towels, closes the door, and then yells out that I need to go to the store to get toilet paper sometime today. I tell her I will and sit back down on the couch in the living room to continue watching Game of Thrones.
When my girlfriend comes out of the bathroom, she’s upset that I didn’t pause the show while she was in the restroom. “You just kept watching without me,” she says.
“We’ve already seen this entire season,” I say.
She insists that isn’t the point and rewinds it. We sit silently for a few minutes, watching the screen, then she turns to me and says, “So are you going to go get that toilet paper?” I tell her I will after this episode. She nods and turns her attention back to the screen.
The moment the credits start to roll, she turns off the TV and says, “Okay, I’m going to make a list of the things we need.” I hate when she says this—the things WE need. This is my apartment, so no, WE didn’t need all of the useless motivational posters that are now tacked up on my wall, WE didn’t need the fucking flower vases with plastic roses, and WE definitely didn’t need two duvets.
She runs into the bedroom and comes back in with a legal pad and a pen. She lies down on the couch, pushing me farther down the couch with her feet so that she can place them across my lap. “Okay,” she says, licking the tip of the pencil the way my grandfather used to do when he wrote a poem—I never understood why he did that—“We need toilet paper, obviously, Hot Pockets, ice cream—”
“Ice cream?” I ask. “Is that something we really need?”
“Well, I need it,” she says.
Then go get it yourself and eat it at your place, I say, but only in my head. We’ve been together for what feels like a generation now, but it’s really only been about six months. I met her at a pet shop while she was there buying dog food for her Chihuahua. She told me his name was Paddle, and I got the pleasure of meeting him a few weeks later when she brought him over to my apartment. I also had the pleasure of cleaning his piss out of my carpet after they’d left.
I hate animals. I was only at the pet shop buying catnip to try to lure the fat tabby that had somehow found its way into my place, out of my place. I’d been trying to get rid of her for a week, and no matter how many times I managed to catch her and place her outside, she always found a way back in. I still don’t understand how, as I have no doggy door and I keep my windows locked. So she was either army crawling through the air vents like John McClane in Die Hard, or my landlord kept sticking her in my apartment to get rid of an unwanted pet. Long story short, I own a cat now.
“And I know we’ve talked about this before,” Stephanie continues, “and I know that you don’t like your name, but I really think we should get some of those block letters to put up on the wall. Felix & Stephanie,” she says, moving her hands the way you see actors move theirs in movies when they utter lines like, “I can see it now: Felix and Stephanie in bright lights on Broadway.”
Yeah, my parents named me Felix. Fucking ridiculous. Felix in Latin is “happiness,” in Greek it’s “lucky,” in some other language it means “good fortune.” I’ve never even won a game of solitaire, and I’m definitely not happy. I did talk to my parents about wanting to change it when I was eighteen. They didn’t take it well. My mom cried and accused me of destroying a sacred family tradition, and my dad guilt-tripped me by asking if I was trying to disown him. They’re old-school Hispanics who insisted that I take on the legacy of the family name. It was more like a curse.
A curse we can trace back to my great-grandfather who died of a heart attack mid-coitus, in bed with a prostitute who just left him there for my great-grandmother to find. He loved having sex with prostitutes, and this one ended up getting pregnant. She only visited his grave after the baby boy was born. He was his third son, all of them named Felix, not one of them lucky. The only person who benefited from my great-grandfather’s death was my great-grandmother, who spent the rest of her life not having to worry about him beating the shit out of her at night for no reason.
Stephanie is staring at me eagerly, waiting for my response on the whole let’s-put-our-names-on-the-wall thing. I try to put it gently and say, “No.”
“Come on,” she says. “It’d be cute.”
“Fine,” she says, and jots down more items on the legal pad, without consulting me.
We’ve basically been angry with each other since we started dating. I’d asked for her number at the pet shop and called her up a few days later. We made plans to watch a movie, but it had taken almost an hour to decide which one. I was adamant about not wanting to watch Fifty Shades of Grey, and she refused to watch The Hateful Eight, so we ended up watching a movie that neither of us had heard of or had any interest in seeing. We should have called it quits then, but of course the moment she said she was looking for a new job, I piped in with, “I can probably get you a job where I work.”
She took me up on my offer and started at Copy King the following week. A week after that, she’d spoken with one of the managers about giving us the same schedule so that we could carpool together. She told me she was trying to be environmentally conscious, but didn’t understand the irony of carpooling to a place that made thousands of paper copies a day. We got to know each other more and more while working together. She likes doing outdoor activities: hiking, bicycling, and going on nature walks. I like none of those things.
“What do you like,” she’d asked me. It was sad that I didn’t have an answer. I’m thirty-one years old and have no hobbies and no aspirations, and I don’t feel the need to. I guess this is why Stephanie quickly advanced to a managerial position at work after only being there three months, and I remained in the same position I’d had for four years. I do the bare minimum at work, sometimes actually just handing the customers a ream of blank paper and getting them to refill the copy machine they’re using so that I don’t have to leave my chair. I don’t know why Stephanie hasn’t dumped me yet. She’s pretty, smart, athletic—all the things I’m not—and could find someone else in record time. Plus, she’s five years younger than me. I think she just wants to help me and is constantly angry because nothing she’s tried so far is working. Or maybe she’s just bossy.
When she’s done with the list of items, she hands it to me and then walks into the bedroom. I know she’s angry, so I call after her asking if she wants to come with me, and she tells me to fuck off. I smile a little, because I think I just found something I do like: annoying Stephanie. Maybe I’ll tell her when I get back from the store. I fold the paper and put it in my pocket, grab my keys, phone, and wallet, and walk out the front door. It’s hot as fuck outside. I make it halfway to the car and consider going back to change into shorts, but I know I’d have to go into the bedroom to get a pair. I decide to take my chances with the heat. I’m almost to my car when my phone starts to vibrate. I pull out my phone and the caller ID tells me it’s my mom, so I push ignore, not wanting to get any more shit from anyone today. She leaves a voicemail.
When I make it to the store, it becomes very clear that it’s a Saturday afternoon. There are barely any shopping carts left, and I bet there isn’t any bread left in the bread aisle. I should have thought about this before I left the apartment, but I’m here now, so I grab a cart, always one of the ones with a squeaky wheel or the locked back wheels. There could be 500 carts to choose from, only one of them having some type of defect to it, and that would be the one I would end up with. The luck of the Felixes.
I weave my way through families and couples doing their weekly shopping, finding all of the things Stephanie has written down. I’m getting her yogurts and don’t understand how anyone can eat it. It looks like bad cottage cheese. I stop to look at the ingredients and realize I don’t know what almost any of them are. I add “ingredients in yogurt” to my mental-list of things I’ll never understand. Other things on my list are: how people can walk in flip flops, why my ancestors continued to name their children Felix even though the name brings bad luck, and how my grandfather died.
When I asked my mom about it, she said she didn’t know. She said that there weren’t many real doctors or advanced medicines in their small town in Guatemala during that time. She did recall how in the weeks following my birth, most of my grandfather’s livestock had died, and how the year after that, the crops hadn’t grown. She told me how my father and grandfather did everything they could to fertilize the soil and save the few sheep and cows that were left, but nothing worked. The crops wouldn’t grow, and the animals, including the chickens, died without any explanation.
“Your grandfather spent a lot more time writing poems during that time,” my mother said. “He only stopped to grab the occasional tortilla con frijoles or use the outhouse, but mainly he stayed in his room and wrote.”
And that’s where they found him dead. Smoke was coming out from under the door to his room, and my parents had rushed in to see what was happening. He was lying on the floor, still holding a pencil that had been worn down to the nub, just like all of his other ones. It seemed that he had fallen right out of his chair, knocking over both of the candles on his desk, setting fire to all of the poems he’d written.
I think he’s had the worst luck out of all of us so far. Not only was all of his work destroyed, but I wonder if he may have still been partially conscious and had to just lie there watching all of his work go up in flames without being able to do anything about it. My parents think it was a brain aneurism, but I think he may have died of lead poisoning from all of those pencils he’d constantly lick. Talk about poetic injustice.
At the store, I check off the last thing on Stephanie’s list with a pen and try making my way to the checkout lanes. The whole way there, I bump carts with other people and people hit the backs of my shoes with theirs. It’s fucking chaos.
The checkout lines are equal in length, but somehow, mine is taking longer. It doesn’t make sense. The people in all the other lines seem to have the same number of items, but somehow their lines are moving faster. I look over all the people in front of me by standing on the bar on my cart, and I swear to god the cashier is older than my dead great-grandfather. She has braces on both of her wrists, and what appears to be a cup of water into which she keeps dipping her fingers in order to moisten them. I wonder if she got in trouble for licking them to open up the plastic bags and now had to use the cup of water. If I’ve learned anything from my experience here today, from thinking about my grandfather and the cashier, it’s don’t lick things.
About a millennium later it’s finally my turn to check out, and I watch as she picks up all of the things from the conveyer belt, one at a time at one item per hour. I start to think I may just shoplift next time. She picks up a loaf of bread and massages her wrist from the strain. Then she looks up at me and flashes her dentures, smiling in a way that suggests that in her mind she’s just gone face-to-face with a strongman in a weight-lifting competition and won.
The moment my debit card goes through, I run out of the store like the Roadrunner, leaving dust and my receipt behind. I quickly load the groceries into my car and don’t even take the cart to the corral; I just put it in the space between my car and the car in front of me. I turn on the car, blast the air-conditioner, and decide that I just want to sit here with my eyes closed for a few minutes. The moment I start to enjoy the cold air and quiet, my phone starts to vibrate. I pull it out of my pocket and see my mom’s name on the caller ID again. So far, my list of things that I do like is limited to annoying Stephanie; the list of things I don’t like is a mile long and one of the things on it is taking calls from my mother. I hit ignore, put the car into gear, and start making my way home. There are six stoplights between the store and the highway. I know this because I have managed to catch every red light. I’m at the final light when I get a message from Stephanie, who I have saved in my contacts as “Chief Commander.” She thinks it’s a term of endearment. It’s not.
Her text says she wants to go to Chili’s for dinner. I want to throw my phone out of the window. I don’t understand why she would make me go to the store to buy groceries if she didn’t even want to eat in tonight. The light turns green and I merge on to the interstate. The worst thing about having the same schedule as Stephanie is that I can’t pretend I’m at work and she knows I don’t have any friends, so I never have an excuse not to do what she wants.
Suddenly, luckily, or unluckily, I’m not sure, I think I may get out of having to go out for dinner. About six miles from my apartment, a cacophony starts up in my engine, then the car dies. I’m doing sixty-five, so I lightly press the breaks and come to a complete stop on the side of the road. Smoke is coming out of the hood of my car. I sigh, contemplating what to do next. I text Stephanie saying that my car just crapped out on the side of the road. I don’t know why I do this. She had me pick her up from her apartment today, so there’s really nothing she can do about it, and I don’t have AAA. She texts back, “No Chili’s then?” I don’t reply.
I get out of my car and pop the hood. I wave away the smoke that tries to attack my entire face and stare at the engine, like it will magically fix itself if I do this long enough. I think of my options. The only thing that really comes to mind is to call my dad. He’s a truck driver, so for the last thirty years he’s had to deal with fixing engines and other truck-related shit that I’ve never understood. I pull out my phone, and it’s almost as if I’ve managed to communicate with my dad through telepathy, because when I look at the screen, I see that I have an incoming call from him. I’m almost scared to answer. I already know he’s going to yell at me before he helps me. It’s always, “Didn’t you learn anything from watching me work on engines?” “No, Dad.” “You’re almost thirty years old. How do you not know how to do your own oil changes?” This usually goes on for about ten minutes. Not just because of my car, although I have had to call him numerous times about that since my car is a piece of shit, but about other things, like how to do my taxes, how to set up my utilities, and how to make tamales.
The phone is still ringing. I inhale deeply, preparing myself for what’s to come, and say, “Hey, Dad.” The voice on the other end doesn’t say anything for a few seconds, so I say, “Hello?”
Finally, my mom’s voice comes over the phone. She sounds like she’s been crying or singing. “Felix, it’s your mom,” she says.
“Oh, hi, Mom. I was actually about to call Dad. My car gave out and I needed some help. Is he there?”
“No,” she says. And then, “He’s not here anymore.”
“The doctors say he didn’t feel any pain.” She goes on to tell me what happened. My dad had just gotten back to Tupelo, Oklahoma, where he and my mom live, from making a delivery in Santa Fe. He was only a few miles from home when something went wrong with his engine. He’d put up the orange cones and turned on the emergency lights. He’d climbed up on one of the tires to get a better look inside the engine and was working on it when he pulled the wrench too hard and fell directly in front of another eighteen-wheeler. An eighteen-wheeler for the same company he worked for.
My mother tells me she’ll buy my ticket to Tupelo so that I can help her make arrangements for the funeral.
I say, “Okay,” and hang up the phone. My father, fifty-seven years old: death by an eighteen-wheeler from the same company he worked for. A company that has let him travel the entire country, but he has somehow died just a few miles from home. Another ironic death for the family death-book.
I lean against my car and start thinking about how I will die. I think about my great-grandfather dying during sex, my grandfather dying while writing poetry, and now my father dying while working on an engine in a truck he loved. I start to wonder if my family curse is being killed by the things we love. But I don’t love anything, so I can’t die from doing whatever that thing would be. Maybe things I have no interest in will kill me. Or maybe because I have no interests, I don’t have to worry about dying from anything but old age.
I start getting scared about now knowing how I’ll go, and think about what it would feel like to fall in front of oncoming traffic. Maybe I can decide how it all ends. Why even bother with this life? All I’m doing is waiting for death. If I take up swimming, I’ll probably drown. If I take up guitar, I’ll probably go deaf and not hear the cries of people telling me to get out of the way as a stampede of elephants escaped from the zoo heads my way. Taking up painting would probably make me go blind, and there are too many ways to die when you’re blind.
My phone buzzes again. Stephanie wants to know, “Did you at least get the ice cream?” This keeps me out of the road. Maybe Bukowski was right in telling us to find what we love and let it kill us. Maybe my college professor was right in quoting Thoreau, saying that the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation, but he would remind me to enjoy the little things while I’m still around. My great-grandfather enjoyed hookers, and he died fucking. My grandfather loved writing poems, and he died writing. My father loved working on engines, and he died working on one. I’m not sure what I enjoy yet, but I know I’ll die doing it. For now, I’ll just take pleasure in knowing that Stephanie’s ice cream is melting in the back seat.
~ ~ ~
Jared Lemus is the Associate Editor of Jabberwock Review. His work is forthcoming in The Kenyon Review and has appeared in PANK, The Mochilla Review, The Crambo, and elsewhere. He’s currently working on his MA in English at Mississippi State University, as well as his first collection of short stories.
This story came to me when I heard someone say (for about the millionth time), “I’m never going to be like my parents.” It got me thinking about how we really want to avoid our parents’ mistakes, but there are just some things we can’t outrun. I decided to take a sort of satirical approach to this story and topic by picking two things this family can’t change: their name and their luck; then I ironically named it “Family Tradition.” My son’s name is actually Felix, so I wonder what he’ll think of this story when he’s old enough to read. I’m also a Jr., so it’s funny to think that my father wanted to give me the same name and wanted me to be just like him but didn’t want me to end up like him. I didn’t name either of my kids “Jared” in order to break that curse.
What book or movie made you cry, or at least weepy?
The movie that made me cry so hard that I had to pause it was “Synecdoche, New York.” I don’t want to give any spoilers, but there is this scene towards the end of the movie involving a funeral and I just lost it. I’m so glad no one else was there to see it. It’s such a powerful movie that reflects mortality and that scene made me cry for five minutes straight. P.S. look up the meaning of “synecdoche” before watching the movie.
What is your favorite band?
It’s so difficult to say what my favorite band is, but I think I’m going to have to go with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The first song I ever heard by them was “Purple Stain,” off of their Californication album, and I was immediately hooked. I looked for every one of their CDs and kept them on repeat in my CD player until their next album dropped in 2002, and I started the whole process over again.
What country have you not visited that is on your bucket list?
A country I haven’t visited yet is Spain. It’s mostly influence by Ben Lerner’s book Leaving the Atocha Station. The way he talks about it in the book, and the fact that my wife went before we were married, makes it sound like a place I would really enjoy. I had a cousin who moved to Madrid and she seems to love it more than she loved Guatemala (her birthplace), so I figure I should see what all of the fuss is about. It really does sound like an amazing place though, and I would love the experience.
Followed by Bio and Q&A
“You cannot keep her in this room,” the nurse said.
“Why?” Johnson said, the veins in his silver crewcut blistering like neon advertisements.
“That should be obvious,” the nurse said.
She was chunky without actually being big, muscular without being mannish. Her forearms were freckled and her hair was so dark a red it was nearly brown. But she wasn’t as young as she liked to pretend. Johnson had spied a few stray gray strands the other day. She must have taken care of them pretty quickly. He hadn’t seen them since.
“It’s not obvious,” Johnson replied.
“Well,” the nurse stammered. She stopped. Her face blanched. The skin around her eyes was bunched and puffy and slightly reddish, as if she’d been crying, but Johnson knew she hadn’t. That’s the way her eyes always looked. It telescoped her brown stare, turned it into something more concentrated, more hawkish. Johnson couldn’t decide if he thought she was pretty or not. She certainly didn’t act pretty; not toward him. And he could never imagine her crying over anything.
“For one thing,” the nurse said. “It’s not visiting hours anymore.”
“She’s a doll.”
“She’s a person. A person doll. A real person doll,” the nurse said, barely forcing the sentence out through her disgust. She cut off the ends of her words like a lawyer making a case. The fact that the doll was supposed to represent Judi Dench, a smart and classy dame if ever there was one, rather than some anonymous, Barbie-bodied female seemed to make it more of an affront for this nurse. To Johnson this seemed an ass-backwards attitude.
“It’s a piece of plastic filled with air, held in place by weights at the bottom.”
“I know that,” the nurse managed to stammer, but Johnson knew what the difficulty was this time. The word “bottom” had suggested to this nurse something other than what he meant. It was true that a crucial portion of the doll was magnificently rotund, and rather on purpose, but he’d like to think that was exacting craftsmanship, an honorable verisimilitude, as well as homage, to the actual Judi Dench. The butt was big for an artistic reason. The doll’s butt was art itself. But what he’d actually meant when he said “bottom” to this nurse was the literal part of the doll that touched the floor. He was surprised at her squeamishness. He thought she was tougher than that.
“The thing is,” the nurse said, “it’s a doll that’s a person.”
“So, you’re saying that if I had a blow-up doll of a dog that would be different?”
“Yes,” the nurse said. “Isn’t it obvious?”
This “obvious” business was getting annoying. Then, instead of explaining the obvious difference to Johnson, she stalked ahead three steps, strangled the neck of the doll with an officious arm, and began lugging it toward the door.
“If you take her away from me I’m going to sue this place,” Johnson said.
The nurse paused, her eyes momentarily widened. The plastic face of Judi Dench was crushed against her bosom. She seemed to have been hoping for just this sort of threat. “I hope you do, old-timer. Because if you sue us, you’ll have to show up in court to explain why you need something perverted like this in your room.” She took one step through the doorway. She stopped, came back, her face contorted into a knot. She opened her mouth. “Besides,” she began. But she stopped herself; she closed her mouth. She shook her head and dragged the doll into the hallway, where she set it up against a wall outside Johnson’s room, close enough that he could see just a little bit of her, a little bit of her base, but be was denied the comfort of seeing all of her. Judi Dench—her wide, elegant face; her flashing blue eyes; her erotically curling lip; her sturdy figure; her unutterable bottom—had been stolen from his room. It was the cruelest form of nurse torture imaginable. So she was tough after all, this one. And Johnson knew what she was about to say to him, what she just managed to bite off, to turn away from at the last second: And you’ll be dead soon anyway, so how are you going to sue anyone?
Johnson was still hoping not to die, but he had to admit that outcome was looking less likely every day. Every morning they stabbed him for another blood sample and immediately carried the sample away to the hospital lab where it was percolated through every machine and calculated two hundred different ways. Every afternoon the same black-haired doctor entered his room all grim in the face and explained why the latest results were not what they had hoped for. The latest results, in fact, always seemed to be trending the other way. The doctor always claimed to believe that the results might be reversed. He said it every single time. But that just hadn’t happened yet. Johnson—despite the brain trauma he’d once he suffered in the Marine Corps during a helicopter training accident; despite the years of headaches afterward; despite his spotty employment history in and around Springfield as a tree man, a handyman, an auto mechanic, and a telemarketer for a now defunct cable service—was not stupid. He heard the real messages beneath the doctor’s professionally measured words, as loudly as if the man were calling to him: You’d have to be an idiot to expect a reversal at this point. I don’t understand how you can lie there hour after hour and not scream. If it were me, I would have killed myself by now. As a matter of policy, Johnson figured, Memorial Medical was doing what it could so that after he died no one in his family could sue it for negligence. Good thing Memorial Medical didn’t know he didn’t have any family.
Judi Dench was his only comfort. She gave him something permanently beautiful, permanently welcoming to look at. Affixed to a hospital bed, all but out of strength, with multiple IVs feeding him medicine and another sending in nutrition twenty-four hours a day, with the nurses barging in day and night, Johnson could no longer take advantage of the doll’s wide articulate mouth, her long throat, and her motorized mouth action. Those days between him and Judi were over. Barring a medical miracle, they were over permanently. How fondly he recalled the last five years of her companionship. Not just the act itself, but how, when the act was done, the two of them would fall asleep in Johnson’s bed, his arms around her plastic bulk, her wonderful bottom abutting his stomach, the same true smile permanently on her face, her belly happily full of him, not needing emptying or cleaning for several more months. Johnson almost could believe that Dame Judi sighed on those occasions. He certainly did.
That was over now, but he still loved to have her near; no, he needed her to be near: to have her as a comfort, to have close to him the only person who knew anything about his life—his actual life, the one before he developed acute leukemia and had to come here. Nor was the doll pornographic, technically. It did not qualify as a public embarrassment. The picture of Judi Dench fixed to the front and back of the doll was a picture of a clothed Judi Dench. Of course Judi Dench would never have posed naked for a blow-up doll company photographer, and Johnson would never have expected that of her. Indeed, in the blow-up image Judi was dressed quite smartly: in a black jumper and charcoal pants; a blazing turquoise scarf cast over a shoulder; a modest string of pearls around her neck; and sensible shoes on her feet. Yes, there was the long throat and motorized mouth action, there was the strategically secured opening between her legs and the other in her charcoal-panted backside, but you could hardly see those openings when she was just standing there in the room with you, waiting to hear what you might need to say. Then she was like any other person: nothing gruesome or ridiculous about her. She just looked like a stand up picture of Judi Dench. Where was the sin in that? And who wouldn’t want Judi Dench for company all day long?
Until this new, muscular nurse arrived on the scene, he’d been allowed to keep Judi in his room with no questions asked. And why not? He was fifty-seven years old. He was probably dying. He had no wife; he had no children; he had no money. He had busted his balls at this job or that—and ever since that training accident at age 22 mainly been busted by them. All for what? To be denied the presence of his most loyal friend in the last weeks of his life? She couldn’t talk to him the way a normal visitor would—that’s not what her mouth action was for—but he could and did talk to her. He talked to Judi all the time in his mind. He told her about his parents, about his favorite class in high school (drawing), about the Marine Corps, about having to give up any kind of work at age 49—the headaches had gotten worse, not better—and go on disability. He told her about his former girlfriends, about the three—yes, three—women who had turned down his proposals of marriage: one with a hug, the second with a cackle, the third who tried to slug him. He talked to Judi in his mind and even, sometimes, especially when there was no one around, with his voice. Lately, he’d been using his voice more and more. All the time.
He supposed that the new, no-nonsense nurse must be offended by Judi’s mouth action. It probably was not wise for Johnson to have pointed that out to her the day they first met. He couldn’t help himself. He remained thrilled by the engineering of it. “Don’t worry,” he assured No-Nonsense, “I won’t be putting her mouth to use. Those days are over.” Clearly, the nurse did not believe him. Apparently she thought a fifty-seven year old man so weakened from leukemia and its treatment that he couldn’t walk without a nurse’s help could still become enlarged enough for a blow-up doll. “She’s just here for someone to talk to,” Johnson added.
The nurse rolled her eyes. “Maybe you should get a parrot,” she said. “At least they talk back.”
“Not a bad idea,” Johnson said. “Can you get me one?”
The nurse snorted. “Parrots are filthy. They carry disease.” At the word, she shot a contemptuous look at Judi Dench, as if she suspected the Dame of the very same thing. The idea, of course, was ludicrous. Who could be cleaner than Judi Dench? It was what attracted Johnson to her in the first place. But he saw the conspiring, calculating expression in the nurse’s eye. Something—something bad—was going to happen. Johnson needed to be on his guard. “Plus,” she said, “I think they’re illegal in Illinois.”
At some point in the night, Judi was returned to him from her exile in the hallway. Johnson didn’t know what time it was, and it didn’t matter. He heard night shift sounds from the nurse’s station: casual, middle of the night articulations; footfalls; files being slowly shuffled and put away. He saw that all but the most necessary lights had been dimmed in his room. Then he saw Judi back in her usual place—two feet or so from the foot of his bed—staring regally at him. Johnson sighed and tried to turn on to his left side, what had always been his favorite sleeping position. No luck. Too many lines. Too many contraptions. He wished he could bring Judi in bed with him, just so that they could spoon together and sigh as in the old days. He could almost stand being in the hospital if this was allowed him. He didn’t need the mouth action, not in his current condition. It’s true she had drunken gallons of him in the five years he’d owned her—it’s true that she’d always performed magnificently—and it’s true that the act had always managed to knock back his headaches so far as to almost eliminate them—but what he really missed was her physical presence, being able to touch her in bed, speak into her ear.
The no-nonsense nurse must have ended her shift. How else had Judi been allowed back in here? He wondered which of the other nurses had brought her in from the hall. Probably that short, thin one, with the big doe eyes and oval glasses and clipped brown hair. She spoke quickly but softly and always struck Johnson as the kindest person on the hall. He’d have to remember to thank her when he saw her next.
The following afternoon No-Nonsense was back. Back for Judi, Johnson supposed. After all, she had no other business in his room. A blonde nurse, younger than No-Nonsense, had just checked on him twenty minutes earlier.
“You touch her, and I’ll clobber you with my socket wrench,” Johnson said, before she could take a step toward the doll.
The nurse laughed. “What socket wrench?’
“I’ve got it in my bag.” This, in fact, was true. About ten years ago, before he left on a trip to Kansas City, Johnson had thrown a socket wrench set into his luggage bag. It just occurred to him that there was nothing handier in an emergency than a socket wrench, and since he had so little else to pack it would not even take up much room. Although he never had reason to use the wrench on that trip, he decided to leave it in the bag; and there it stayed for ten years.
The nurse frowned. For once she seemed to take him seriously. “Let me see,” she said.
“What if I need it?” Johnson said.
“What do you need a socket wrench in a hospital for?”
“I might need to fight you with it.”
“You’re not fighting anyone, old timer. “
“Take away my girlfriend.”
Now she laughed scornfully. “That’s not what I would call her.” The nurse glanced at Judi’s mouth.
This inspired Johnson to sit up straighter, to lift his back away from the pillows. “I’m happy to tell you exactly what she does and does not do for me, if you’re willing to listen. It’s not what you think. Not at all.”
“You trying to tell me that she doesn’t do anything but stand against the wall there?”
“I’m saying she keeps me company.”
“And all that means is that you’re not using the dumb thing for what it’s supposed to be used for. It’s still a doll.”
“I think you’re jealous of her, is what it is.”
“It’s a doll,” the nurse spat and shook her head. To make the point, she grabbed Judi Dench around the throat and started to drag her.
“Aw come on, they just brought her back in to me.”
“I don’t know. I think the nice nurse did—with the glasses and brown hair.”
“Is that her name?”
“You think Shelby brought the doll back in for you?”
“I don’t know. She’s the only nice one around here.”
“When did she?”
“Last night. When I was asleep. Judi was in the hallway, where you put her, and then I woke up and I saw her in the room again.”
“That was me,” the nurse said. “Shelby was fired two days ago. I brought it back in here before I went home. Because I felt sorry for you. And because I thought you were asleep.”
Johnson didn’t know what to say. It was like when he became conscious again after his training accident and was told that if not for evasive maneuvers by another helicopter pilot the crash would have been worse, would have killed him. Except that, unfortunately, the evasive maneuvers ended up killing the other pilot. What could he say in the face of such news? How could he live with that?
“Well, I woke up,” Johnson finally managed. “I wake up during the night. All the time. Every night.”
The nurse glowered for a moment, the skin around her eyes looking puffier than ever. “You’re welcome,” she said and proceeded to haul Dame Judi into the hallway. This time she set her up where Johnson couldn’t see her, not even a little bit.
Two days later No-Nonsense was working again. Around four, Johnson’s doctor came in to give him the latest. The man’s shoulders were drooping this time, his step more halting. Before he spoke he raised his hand to his head and start scratching at his mane of peppery black hair. Maybe the man was forty, Johnson thought. Maybe. “Uh,” the doctor started, a devastating sound, “I don’t—I can’t—” He stopped. He paused. He started again. Johnson didn’t care if it took him three days to get the news out. He didn’t want to hear any of it. “I’m afraid I can’t offer a lot of hope for you right now, Mr. Johnson. We’ve been watching these numbers pretty hawkishly, as you know. I kept hoping your white cell count would break and come down, but I’m not seeing it. I’m not seeing any change for the better. In fact, it’s gotten slightly worse.” Another pause, almost as long. “I think it might be time for us to talk about hospice care, a hospice situation.”
“You want to send me home?”
The doctor’s head reared; his cold blue eyes tingled with a rare compassion. “I mean hospice. That can come in a variety of forms. Home hospice is one of them, yes. That’s what a lot of people prefer. But not everybody.”
For several seconds, Johnson stared at the wall beyond the doctor’s shoulder. “So for sure I’m going to die?”
The doctor started a tame shrug, but then stopped himself.
Don’t you dare say that we all are going to die some time.
The doctor stood waiting, as if expecting Johnson to say something cogent, something that helped. But Johnson had nothing to say. After waiting for as long as he could, the doctor said, “Something to think about, Mr. Johnson. We can talk more tomorrow, and then you can decide.”
Johnson didn’t answer. The doctor waited a few moments more, offered an ill-formed apologetic noise from this throat, and then left the room.
A half-hour later No-Nonsense came in. She messed with his pillows. She straightened his sheets. She checked on his temperature and a couple other numbers. She asked if he wanted some water.
“If I give you a chocolate bar,” Johnson asked, “will you let her stay the night?”
No-Nonsense chuckled gently. “So you have chocolate on you, do you?”
“This the same bag with the socket wrench?”
“Is it good chocolate?”
“It’s great chocolate. From Holland.”
“How do you get chocolate from Holland?”
Johnson shrugged. “I always make sure to keep some on me.”
The nurse studied him. “You’re telling the truth, aren’t you?”
Johnson turned away; he couldn’t look at her anymore. He heard her shuffle around. “This your bag?” the nurse said. Whose else could it be? The zipper on it was almost useless, now that the pulling part had come off; and there was a rip near its base. He’d been thinking about getting another one, but just never got around to it. It’s not that he was sentimental about a piece of luggage; he just didn’t take enough trips that a bag mattered. He heard her struggle with the zipper, but then she managed to move it.
“I’ll be damned,” she said. “Verkade Chocolade.”
He heard her set the bag down. Then for several seconds he heard nothing. Then he felt something pressed into his hand.
“You brought it,” she said. “You eat it.”
That evening when he was supposed to sleep, at the time when he’d always managed to fall asleep, he was awake. Because they’d detached one of the lines feeding chemicals into his body he was able to turn to his left slightly and focus better on Judi’s face, which he could almost make out in the sallow light bleeding in from the hallway. Despite the usual smile and the glinting eyes, the miraculous spunk preserved in that crusty English mug, there was something missing this time, and not just on account of the incomplete light. It did not take long for Johnson to see it. What was missing was true happiness. Judi was only putting up a show; inside she was spiraling, she was confused, she was trying to regroup, trying to land someplace where her balance would stay firm, but she did not have the slightest notion where the footholds were. Instead of the delight or anger or contempt or tomfoolery he normally saw in those bright eyes, he saw only pain.
I’m not sure there’s a point in us going home, he said to her. I don’t know what that does for us.
Judi kept smiling but now she seemed more disappointed than ever.
I’m sorry. We can go if you want.
But Judi’s expression stayed the same. His offer made her no happier.
Johnson was aware of being watched, somewhere from over his right shoulder. He turned and saw, standing just inside the doorway, the outline of the no-nonsense nurse. This was surprising. Wasn’t she gone by now, most days? Maybe she was taking someone else’s shift. Maybe she was supposed to check on him. For the life of him, he didn’t see the point of that now. He didn’t understand why they didn’t just turn everything off. He tried to turn back on his side, half-managed it. He heard her approach.
The question answered itself Johnson thought, so he said nothing.
“Want to talk?”
He would have said “About what?” but then it occurred to him that that question also answered itself. So he said nothing. He heard her make a noise behind him: not a snort, more like a shout, except that it was quiet. She said nothing more, did nothing more, for seconds. He wished she would check whatever it was she had to check and then go.
“So,” she said more loudly, “is it home then?”
It took him a second to realize what she meant. He shrugged.
“Don’t you think it would be better at home?”
“Isn’t home always better?”
Johnson didn’t answer.
“How can it be better?” he said. He felt her grow still behind him, quiet. Thinking. He felt something touch the ties on the back of his robe. The ties were being untied. He started.
“Stay still, goddamn you,” she said. “Just lie there.”
So he did, not understanding, not even breathing. When the ties were untied, she pulled the covers back on his bed, all the way down to his ankles. Then, again from the ankles but this time lifting up, she brought his gown above his waist, so that all of him down there was exposed to the open air. The first time he’d felt that in weeks. Since before he’d come to the hospital. He wondered if she had to stab him with something down there. But she hadn’t needed to in the past; none of them had. He hadn’t needed to be exposed for anything that they did.
“What’s going on?” he said.
Her only answer was to walk away, leaving stranded on the bed, his lower half naked, his junk as old and pointless as he himself felt. Instead of exiting the room, however, she went to the doll. She picked it up gently, and carried it to the bed. She positioned Judi Dench just so—on her right shoulder, turned toward his belly, so that her mouth was more or less on line with where it needed to be. She reached behind Judi’s head to find the switch. As soon as she flipped it, Johnson heard the old familiar humming sound, strong as ever, he heard Judi’s mouth motions start. No-Nonsense nudged Judi’s head a little closer to him. Closer still. But with the chemicals inside him and the enervation of his sadness, Johnson’s penis lay still, unmoving, unexpanded.
“For heaven’s sake,” the nurse exclaimed and stroked him until a growth started, a beginning blood rush, something he could work with.
“I think you know what to do,” she said, and brought her hand back. But even as he made himself grow more; even as he inserted himself into Judi’s mouth and let the doll’s mechanized motions massage him to excitement, the nurse didn’t leave. She stayed behind him, keeping a hand on his right shoulder. The hand did nothing. It merely remained, reminding him of her. The rush was the same as always and yet completely different, devastating and yet filled with resonating contentment.
“Let me clean you up,” the nurse said. She found a washcloth in his bathroom and dampened it with warm water at the sink. She wiped him until he was thoroughly swabbed. Then she patted him dry with another washcloth and retied the hospital gown. She pulled the covers above his waist.
“I guess Judi might need a little cleaning too,” the nurse said. In fact, she didn’t. It was part of the miracle of her engineering that the Dame Judi Dench doll could take his mess all the way inside her and look completely free of smear. But Johnson let the nurse take her anyway. He heard her drag the doll along the floor toward the bathroom.
“Don’t bring her back,” Johnson said.
“You heard me,” he said, and the nurse said nothing. Which meant she must have heard him.
When he rested his head against his pillow next, all of him inside was dark and swimming. He waited to hear the nurse come out of the bathroom; he waited to hear her take Judi away. He would say something—one thing more—to this nurse he would never see again, but in the moment his head felt too full. Then he wasn’t swimming anymore but treading water. Maybe drowning. Somehow, at the same time, it felt sweet.
~ ~ ~
John Vanderslice teaches in the MFA program at the University of Central Arkansas. His short stories, poems, essays, and one-act plays have appeared in dozens of creative journals, including South Carolina Review, Southern Humanities Review, Sou’wester, and Crazyhorse. His collection of stories Island Fog (Lavender Ink) was named by Library Journal as one of the Top 15 Indie Fiction Titles of 2014. His historical novel The Last Days of Oscar Wilde was published by Burlesque Press in January, 2018.
When I teach fiction writing, whether to a graduate or undergraduate class, I like to devote a portion of semester time to simply composing. What better way for a writer to use his time, right? Typically, I bring a list of prompts to class, although I don’t require my students to use any of the prompts if they already have an idea in mind. One night my list of prompts included this idea: “a Judi Dench blow-up doll.” (Don’t ask. These prompts just jump into my head, although I should say Judi Dench is one of my favorite actresses.) Both I and one male graduate student couldn’t resist giving that one a try. This story is what came out of it. A more serious piece than I think I had in mind when I typed out that prompt!
What book or movie made you cry, or at least weepy?
I’m rarely if ever weepy at books, but occasionally a tear up at a movie. I remember feeling profoundly moved by the movie Lion. Such a long, hard journey that man had to get back to his home village and find his mother. If you aren’t moved by that, something is wrong with you.
What is your favorite band?
An old favorite from my younger days, and one I still greatly admire, is the prog rock band Yes. I adore the complexity of their compositions and the simple virtuosity of their playing. It’s the only rock music I can think of that can fairly be compared to classical music. In recent years, I’ve been getting into that other side of my musical heritage—I grew up in the southern Maryland woods—and by that I mean bluegrass. I’ve purchased many CDs by Alison Krauss and Union Station. Again, one of the hallmarks of bluegrass is the virtuosity of the players.
What country have you not visited that is on your bucket list?
Never been to Australia, but I’ve wanted to go since forever. In some ways, I hear, it’s a lot like America, but without some of the more problematic aspects of America. Namely, gun violence.