Thomas Denis Gibney

FICTION

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POETRY

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SOUND

“Junk in the Trunk”

 

The last time Kaylee Prince ever saw anyone about a disability or a deficiency was the ninth of November, 2010, inside a taupe, taupe room staged with a surfeit of Mirós, a ticket in her hand. “Is this how this works?”

The woman was tree-like and dreadlocked as a Toni Morrison double. She put down her red-rimmed glasses. “I know this isn’t the first time you’ve been here, Kaylee.” Her voice just as ancient. “But seeing as I’m new here, why don’t you fill me in on who you are and what you’re doing here?” Was that a hitch in the air freshener’s dispensing clicks or a like denigratory emphasis on here?

“Did the university just hire you? How long have you been here?”

Or was the emphasis on doing? Kaylee couldn’t decide which was worse.

“I’ve been doing this kind of work for a long time, Kaylee,” she said with practiced gentleness. “I’m here to listen to you.”

What was with that listen? Did she mean something by that?

The counselor was looking at her with her head cocked, leaned back in her chair, her eyebrows plucked or withered. She was chewing gum. She was pretty, in a middle-aged kind of way, Kaylee could say without issue. “Is that your diploma?”

“…Kaylee, let’s start with you, hm? Why do you think you’re here?”

Kaylee stares a hole into a scrambled-egg Miró.

“…Kaylee, your mother tells me you’ve lost a grandfather recently. And that you’re having trouble in school. Do you think that’s why you’re here?”

From such a far way off, Kaylee understood that words meant nothing. She could go on forever in permanent ellipsis, Kaylee could; communicating nothing, nothing left intelligible. The arrival of this thought was neither comforting nor abysmal.

“…talking about where you’re coming from, where you come in here, Kaylee.” Why the snidey emphasis on you?

Kaylee resumed her stiff posture. “I’m out of breath, miss. This place makes me winded.”

“Kaylee,”—a shuffling of manila folders—“do you remember Miz Leanne? Miz Leanne from here before?”

“Is that a metaphorical question?”

“Cause I’ve got some data here, Kaylee, that says you two got to know each other, here… If it’s alright with you, I’d like to just step into those shoes for a bit. Just for a bit. Just for the next twenty minutes or so. So you and I, we can get to know each other some.” Did she mean something by the stress on shoes? on other? “…Maybe we can start with your interests. What d’you study here, hm?”

She looked around at the walls, clearly arranged to induce introspection. “Art history.”

“Mm-kay.” Mm-kay?

The tree-haired counselor leaned in closer. A classic move. Kaylee leaned back. “You got a boyfriend here? A love interest?” Kaylee was like, adverse to that question. “What about a group of friends? Some support system, know what I’m saying?” There were like too many emphases to pick out of that one.

“…”

“Kaylee, tell me something. Something funny that happened to you recent.” She got herself leaned back all comfortable and inviting-like and hands folded in reverent therapist-speak. “Anything. Can be just a silly observation, or a thought you had recently. Even a passing comment. Something that made you laugh. Know what I mean?”

Ah, the inquiry daubed in empathy.

“I’ll start. Friend of mine, the other day”—her voice is as muddy and ancient as old tree-haired Morrison—“she calls up and asks me do I wanna come for supper.” Classic: establishing vulnerability to open the conversation up. “Meantime we get all interested in our people and our people’s people, ask about the kids, the men—Lord help us, the men—and what the crew is up to, you know; y’know, girl’s gotta check in with her crew now and then.”

“…”

“And so listen to this, she’s like, Linda girl. Mind bringin somethin to supper? Feel like gettin on the licker train tonight, know ’sup? And I’m like girrrl say no more. Say—no—mo. And so I up and go buy some Don Pedro from Bozeman’s—you know how girl Shawnelle like her rum, girl—and we all at the house by six that night. And we all fucked up by seven. Shawnelle, hear—I’m tellin you, girl waste no time on that Don Pedro. I got some stories from Temple. Spare you that for now. But so my girl Shawnelle she all classy tonight, know what I’m sayin? She got the or-derves out, she got the crackers and dip, she got these little triangles of some rank-ass cheese—and here we are all eight of us girls poundin shots of filthy Don Pedro like we was AKA sisters all over again, circa fall sophomore year. Don’t get me on that yarn, cause you don’t wanna hear it. But round seven thirty’r so there comes a ring at the door. Now girl Shawnelle she been up to somethin. She lights up all like and’s like, that must be the guests. The guests?? And she opens the door and who is it but these two black Barbies in big high heels and fancy dresses and like and some a those birthday cones up on they heads with the ’lastic bands tucked under the chin, blowin kazoos all up in there. And they got mad briefcases with them, right? And they open ’em up, and Shawnelle go, Surprise, bitches!—cause you know what it is, it’s a straight up sex shop in there. Triple-X. Raunchy business. Toys, lotions, panties, videos—things that need batteries, girl. These ladies are downright travelin saleswomen—‘Junk in the Trunk,’ they’re called—and they proceed to demonstrate to us for the next two or somethin hours. Hours, girl. I ain’t even heard of Pass the Cucumber before that night. But that’s Shawnelle—no mystery her man never home these days—still cookin up shit. Temple / no Temple. That girl never change. And this is like a Tuesday night, y’know?”

“…………”

“…So? Your turn, Kayles. [Kayles?!] This is nonjudgmental, see? Whatever you think you wanna say, it’s fair as Christmas here. [Fair as Christmas?!?!] …Know what I mean?”

The Mirós were closing in on her, the walls compressing in horror.

Ellipsis, ellipsis,      … ellipsis.

~

But today Kaylee is intelligible to herself, cruising off the main road through the Amish neighborhood’s curt awnings and fit front lawns. Nevermind the ashy mantle of a sun withheld from view. The quiet is deceiving, this: the palm lines and concrete canals of the smalltime American city. You get to thinking, Kaylee gets to thinking, about roads. About Bahia Vistas, Browning Streets, Pelican Drives, Shade Ave Lime Ave Osprey and Apricot; Myrtle St Bradenton Royal Palm and Iroquois; the wistfully named Chapel Dr, still hoarding its namesake as if an excuse; names recalling the vague lost sense of unspoiled bucolica—“Indian Beach” and “Sapphire Shores”; names that ooze—“Olympia Fields”—with august parallelism; names like Desoto that testify to history’s bloody pendulum; and off Cocoanut, where the blacks live, the 18th, 19th, 20th Streets; the obligatory Martin Luther King; the Amaryllis Parks and Bayou Oaks that sustain the fun-loving dream of forty acres and a mule; the Bayshore Rd. where Kaylee careens under an avuncular jacaranda distended in open embrace of the sky.

She could almost forget, as anyone could forget their aches in such a place, almost forget the disquieting zaps in the back of her head that have started since she got here. Erratic, troublesome. They reminded her of what John used to call “the leaks”. The leaks—they comprised an inexplicable sort of, condition—to use her mother’s term—that just kind of, sorta, sprung up from her, all through her growing up. The leaks—they were the first alarming signs of distress in the girl—her mother paced the living room—the kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Bell, couldn’t explain it—said it was worrying Mary Katherine’s classmates—said some students were getting mixed signals and they were getting distracted and to be honest weirded out by it—Dr. Engles the family’s general practitioner couldn’t figure it out—referred the matter to his “old Duke buddy” Dr. Sizemore—in all of his twenty years as a child psychiatrist Dr. Sizemore certainly hadn’t seen anything like it—he could prescribe some medication, if that’s what Mrs. Prince wanted?—it was probably just a phase but these days pharmacology was really making strides in the treatment of children with emotional imbalances—you could never be too safe—after all, these years were very formative and if left untreated these kinds of things tend to lodge in and swell up into ugly repressions later in life—and he could write a prescription for Equilibria®, if Mrs. Prince wanted to go that route?

Believe her, Kaylee didn’t ask for a dropperful of tears to well up at unpredictable moments as a child; she didn’t, like, will this baneful effluence to break the levees down, wasn’t just dying to be called lagrimosa [“lagrimosa” ⇒ attr. to Julio Méndez, second row, third seat from the right] when she was just trying to play Uno before naptime; it’s not like she cleared her throat and said: Okay, eyes! Time to cry! whenever she got around people—I mean, seriously?—but could six-year-old Kaylee explain this to anyone? To anyone else, it was odd. It made people uncomfortable. Kaylee herself didn’t learn its discomfiting connotation until that year, when even fellow kindergartners recoiled in confusion. Her brother John, ever inventive, was the only one who didn’t make her feel like a total freak when he talked about it. He even compared her to Mary. Said she should try wiping her face on a shroud or something, see what comes out. [Eight years old: Kaylee tries: even the dishtowel’s traces of grime couldn’t be construed into any angelic constellation, any sacred pattern.] This was when John was still religious. He saw images of Mary in anything and everything: baseball fields, chicken nuggets, seashells copped from seashores, anything. But at least he didn’t make her feel like a freak. When he christened her sporadic spouting “the leaks”, it wasn’t out of spite or out of malice: in his older-brother way, he was doing it out of heart. A little dose of jest to take the heat off. John was like that. Kaylee thinks of him as she pedals the pavement, wondering how hard he’s tearing his body now.

The zaps were another matter. But Kaylee knew. A whole row of jacarandas sways in the January breeze. She was dried up now—she hadn’t loosed a tear since May—that May—but now she was met with a different unwanted sensation; and Kaylee knew. She knew—O.K., surmised—that it had something to do with the pills. Last May marked not only the end of her sorry lachrymal condition, but the end of her dependence on those bright miserable “candies” too [“candies” ⇒ attr. to Jacquelyn Prince, mother of four]. She had the orange prescription bottles filled with them, untouched, in the dresser drawer of her new second-floor bedroom, 6364 Beersheba Dr., for evidence. An evidence she would continue to conceal from everyone.

Bayshore still waxes exultant, more so, in the afternoon glum. The jacarandas are pretty specimens. With their broad, spindly branches, they wave overhead, dangling their soundless purple bells. Kaylee—who’s always felt an affinity with trees—thinks it just might be a disinterested compassion that she’s gleaning from their gaze. Her gleanings are only sometimes trustworthy but why not go with it. The bells crouch leisurely in their holsters; Kaylee dismounts near a cluster of them, tired from the ride. They seem to point to a larger, more luxurious, and yet hardier tree a ways down. A closer look reveals

 

 

it’s a big, holy-looking banyan. Awesome, prolific, imposing: it swells against the curb of a small alley Kaylee has somehow wandered herself into. She looks around and realizes she’s gone off Bayshore, off a side street that must have split from the main road. She can feel the ocean breeze, smell the briny air; so the water can’t be far off. But in her reverie she’s found herself in someplace quite ethereal—spooky, more like it. No one is around, nothing moving, the sounds of the trees private and obscure. At this T-shaped juncture she looks to the direction she came from, where the water must be; and the other way, where the trees stretch off down a lazy lane. A broken-down school bus down the way lies interred in creeper vines and drenched in Day-Glo and spray paint, like an imitation Further. But the banyan: it stretches way back into the lot. Not a lot, an ecosystem. A miniature kingdom of banyan. The trunk Kaylee thought was the trunk isn’t even a trunk, but one of dozens of stalagmitic aerial roots, sprouted heavenward and clenching gnarly fists on the banyan’s low-flying branches in a trippy adventitious manner. In the glum, the pillars they form are cast in a cindery pallor through the interstices of shade. Under here it looks like droll master Shiva came back from one of his lays in the local cremation grounds and got a little giddy and started throwing ash all over the place. Kaylee ventures in—the grass is thick and overgrown—littered with spores and nut casings and crazed, cracked leaves. And yet there is a self-regulating order to the place. A snake that might have slithered. Broad brushstrokes of dark green overhead. The banyan covers all, enveloping its kingdom in a spectral canopy. She feels herself drawn through the forest of root-pillars, whose gnarled frames take on petrified anthropomorphic shapes, propping up as if on shoulders, backs, and arms the massive lateral growth of this one ancient monolith, the central trunk of which she now moves toward, leaving the bike on the ground. Face to face with it, she sees where the chicken scratch from a Swiss army knife has disfigured the tree with a doleful JP <3s LANA 4EVA. Kaylee is a staunch non-tree-carver. She wants to tell JP to jerk it. She places her finger in a little knobby nook of a protrusion. There is a cool, living touch to the banyan. The touch of so much cyclical history, so much blood and life and death, so many growing pains, groundswells, and impasses. The breeze streams in, as if to affirm this. Just then Kaylee’s hand springs back as a lizard darts out of the nook. Lizards! Again she thinks of John from a long way off. Brother John: prolific lizard-catcher. The game they played all the time in South Carolina, at the beach, where there were lizards galore—not like in Tennessee. He was the master. Could always out-catch Kaylee and Angelica too. What he would do is he had this tactic. He’d sneak up real close, spread his albatross arms to full wingspan, and draw one of them in behind the cornered lizard, perched on a twiggy shock of beach shrub. Then he’d go in for the pinch—the lizard in mid-sunbath, its scarlet dewlap inflating—and the devil would leap right into the other outstretched hand of the dexterous budding basketball phenom John Jr. He had a like sixty give-or-take percent success ratio, which these lizards were faster’n God blinking, John said. Even if the little devils didn’t jump directly into the snare, John could snatch them out of the air, hand moving in sync like a defender poaching the passing lane, eyes focused and microscopically precise. This one looks exactly like those—bright green rubbery skin, loooong-ass tail, and triangular head into which two kernels of coal for eyes are fixed, shiny and disarmingly knowing. It’s paused on the arc of the trunk, just kind of chilling there, observing K.P. K.P. returns the stare. John used to pride himself on the tails, too. If you caught the lizard from the backside and you got a hand on its tail, more times’n not you’d end up with just a thin string of tail between your fingers and nothin more but the shakin of a bush the thing had shimmied off through. Clever devir, John would say every time, more in admiration than defeat. Tails were like the imaginary scalps in Cowboys an’ Indians that got you extra points in the intricate imaginary world of John’s games with the next-door neighbors, which he always enlisted Kaylee as Pocahontas or Lady Someone-or-Other. Kaylee realizes with a certain discomfiture that this is the first time she’s thought of that time since she doesn’t even know when—since maybe when it happened. And yet it happened so lucidly at the time. She didn’t like it when John brought back tails. Freaked the shit out of Grammy Prince too [what was Meemaw doing in that room?]. I mean, would you want your tail yanked off? Did it hurt to lose a tail? Could the little guys feel it? The lizard pulses its dewlap out and back at her in measured, silent intervals. Its eyes communicate some deep Triassic intelligence on a par with the knowing touch of the banyan. Kaylee takes a step closer—but it darts off again behind the tree. She tries to follow it, eyes combing the branches, but when she rounds the corner there’s no sign of it there.

~

Watching the sun rise over the pinkened-as-hell landscape, Rory B. felt happy to be alive. Crows as commas on a sagging power line, a jelly-jar glassiness to the sea. Terracotta Bayshore roofing sloped toward the horizon.

“Like whut chu see?”

Rory B. didn’t turn. He kept looking at the pinkened landscape. The whole world wakin up and such.

“Cause you gonna get real used to see it, see.”

Rory B. plumbed at the itch in his nose. “I ain’t doubt that,” he went.

Manny Q. had his hand on the wheel, running it across the worn leather. The waves were lapping out there. “That’s bueno, hombre. That’s real bueno.”

The snifter-shaped one with the cola-dark skin got back in the gray Silverado then. He resumed his mute surveying of their conversation from the back seat.

Manny Q. went on, “You see, mayne. This the kinda place hombres don’t realize they in they place they got.” The waves were doing their repeated sapphirine shimmying over the strand. “They ain’t think the place ever owned by anyone other. Think they is the place, cachai. That the place is them, cachai.”

Rory B.’s right nostril was itching but not. It felt like an afterthought, hanging there on his face. Vaguely registered, vaguely itching. But maybe not itching.

Manny Q. went on, “Like this one.” A dad-aged guy passed some meters in front of the truck, towed by a yellow lab. “Mira a ese tipo.” The surf smoothed over their prints in the sand. Rory B.’s hair was in a ponytail that flowed out between the gap in his Marlins cap’s backside. Manny Q. had the bony cheeks and the Incan nose of Rory B.’s idea of a real redskin. “Gringos like that, mayne…you see it in the eyes. No struggle in there. No lucha, cachai. Live like this was made for them. Like it ain’t gotta be got. Whut izit chu say—destino manifestado.”

The truck was parked in the public lot, too far away to see the eyes. “Yeah aight whatever, Mannycure or whatever. Jus remember you talkin to one, aight. Don’t get excited.” Rory B. shifted in his seat to look around. The snifter-shaped one still silenter as ever in the back. “How bout you, big fella? You out to get you some gringos and all?”

Manny Q. with the Incan nose looked in the rearview mirror. “Blanco—no’ vamo’?” The one called Blanco nodded. Manny Q. turned the key in the ignition. The Silverado started up in a fit. It had to be a joke—Blanco—even Rory knew “Blanco” meant “white” in Spanish (this one was every color but). “But don’t get too used to it, hombre,” Manny Q. said again to Rory B. “You end up like them—” he nodded toward the disappearing dad figure— “and when you least spect it? … ” He turned his pinkeyed, darkpooled-of-a-pupil look at Rory B. and mimed what Rory B. took to be a firecracker exploding.

“Y’all all fulla it,” Rory B. went. “I lived up in Florida pisswamps all my life. Y’all outta whatever halla-peeno dick league you think you come from. Drive me a our nappin hole, I’m gettin some shut-eye.”

Manny Q.’s eye glistened. He appeared to smirk to himself as he backed the gray Silverado out of the parking lot and quietly turned up the road toward the Mermaid Motel.

~

The story of how Zoë Sikelianos came to reside at Chez Denouement doesn’t involve epic Grapes of Wrath family migrations, horror histories of abusive orphanages, or temper-tantrums climaxing in defiant exodus from home (that was the story of another resident—but that’ll come later). In fact, she was a third-year student at the decidedly alternative Nuevo College on Bayshore, where Carolyn herself was tenure-tracked associate professor. The putative great granddaughter of a famous Greek poet, she had the tall, Athenian beauty of generations of sun-sprayed Greek relations, and she had a shared desire—the overarching prerequisite for habitation at the chez—to live off the grid.

Carolyn first noticed the understatedly self-assured girl in her Intro to Cultural Anthropology seminar, which at a school like Nuevo College meant eight or nine pairs of overalls, tie-dye ankle skirts, and cut-off jeans sitting barefooted and crosslegged on Dra. Prince’s Hopi-made shag rug that covered the length of her office floor, from which she preferred to teach her Intro Anth classes. Carolyn liked to go by “Doctora” instead of the gender-ambiguous “Dr.”—citing the latter appellation’s having been hijacked by the male culture as the common denominator—the default designation—by which all identities were understood and expressible in terms of this male signifier—“like Man and mankind, which we all know refer to both men and women, and all of the body’s iterations in between,” she explained. Whereas most tuned out when she took off on one of her soulful digressions for which she was infamous on RateMyProfessor.com, and whereas on average probably two-thirds of them were stoned in any given lesson, Zoë paid unblinking attention during the Doctora’s classes and didn’t do anything patronizing like nod or crease her brow ingratiatingly when Carolyn would speak, and she asked the right questions at just the right times and with the patience of a lynx—her long, bronzed arm raising unhurriedly when the given digression had come to a trough, Carolyn insisting that Zoë stop raising her hand because this was an egalitarian learning environment, please, and I insist that you refrain from the urge to raise your hand as an acknowledgment of my perceived authority—none of which stellar student attributes was lost on Dra. Prince, all of which made her feel good and appreciated as a teacher.

Zoë had a cat named Salvador Sanchez that was unusually obliging for a mackerel tabby and that she sometimes brought to lessons, to gallivant around and rub against the bookshelves in Carolyn’s office while they discussed ethnocentrism in the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss. This thrilled Carolyn, because all her life she had been denied the company of cats—her mother Mary Louise and her older sister Jacquelyn suffering (in the case of the latter) from incapacitating cat-related allergies and (in the case of the former) from an undiagnosed chronic ailurophobia. Whereas some girls grew up desiring a pony, and others were moved by the appeal of more exotic specimens like parrots or songbirds, Carolyn ached for just one striped feline to hold and confide debutantish secrets to throughout her childhood, the creature having risen to the ranks of demigod in her mind on account of its outlawed status in the Prince family household. The bibliomaniac young Carolyn liked to frequently remind her mother that there were lots of famous self-described ailurophobes in history—like, oh, I don’t know, A-DOLF HIT-LER or let’s see NA-PO-LEE-OWN BONE-A-PART or maybe you’ve heard of prodigious practitioner of the rape-as-war-tactic, GENG-HIS KAHN?, if you wanted to be in that company—just saying. [None of that banter ever did a thing to “heal” her Mami, of course.] And so—where was this going?—and so Carolyn cringed with delight when Zoë’s Salvador Sanchez began installing himself as a permanent fixture in Intro Anth that semester, conspiring to cement Carolyn’s affection for the young girl even further. Zoë’s academic interests diverged into more practical territory her second year [labor economy and women’s studies, specifically the distribution of women in labor (not that labor, she got tired of explaining over the snickers)], but Carolyn still invited her to share tea in her office, and, later, extended the invitation to one of the famed Chez Denouement potlucks.

That was what hooked her. “I need a place to do my painting,” Zoë said that afternoon, marveling at the huge yard and the improbable, gravity-defying architecture of the house, not dissimilar to those homesteads sprouted from the imagination of Dr. Seuss. “…And, and, you guys are totally like living off the map here!” Carolyn beamed. “That’s the idea,” she said. “And there’s an open room,” she added. Zoë bit her lip— but not for long— “I’m in. I’m tired of living in apprehension about eating the wrong brownies from the fridge at the Nuevo co-op. Finding myself back on a Greek isle for the next twelve hours.” Carolyn leaned in: “Between you and me, sweetheart,” she went, “I can’t guarantee you you’ll be completely out of the woods on that one here. But at least the company is better.” Done deal. The same winter, which was what, winter of 2009-10, Zoë moved out of the Nuevo co-op and its stoned ideals of community living and took what she considered to be a big proactive step up in her autonomy as a thinking young adult.

Things got considerably tougher when Carolyn asked her to start tutoring the pimple-faced Zeb.

“Are you freaking kidding me?” he goes, pitching his pencil on the notebook. “We’ve done long division of fractions for two weeks now.”

“You show me some progress, mister, and I’ll show you a new topic,” Zoë shoots back.

“It’s like torture. Are you like a sadist or something?”

An unasked-for but strangely nostalgic image from one of her more fringe-associated Sexuality Studies textbooks flashes across Zoë’s mind.

“Only when it’s good for you,” she says over the stifling vision of black leather.

“You don’t even study math. Do you study math?” Zeb’s pimply face is scrunched up in disgust beneath Sun-In’d hair frozen stiff with gel. The scrunching compounds the pressure beneath the mini volcanoes of pimples on his cheeks, making them go white and dangerously close to erupting.

“It’s a life skill, Mr. Know-it-all. Dividing things and adding things. Why wouldn’t you—”

“Have you ever done drugs?”

Zeb’s pointed question catches Zoë off guard. It was a favorite trope of Zeb’s—asking pointed and disruptive questions to catch people in a lie he could later use to blackmail them, if he wanted to. He had a good notebook of them going.

“I—what? I mean—what?

“So you have. Noted.” Zeb retrieves the pencil, coolly opens his notebook, and makes a few jots.

“Zeb—” Zoë struggles— “Look, monsieur, you’ve got some studying to do. And if you want me to bring up your curiosity about drugs to your mom and dad—”

Please,” he half-speaks, half-snorts. “Everyone knows they do it. Sawaad gives me hits from his shisha. And it’s not tobacco. What a load of.”

“Okay—okay. Okay. Sure, you’re fifteen, you know what’s up. Great. Congratulations. King Zebulon the Omniscient.”

“You know I don’t like being called that.”

“Let His Majesty be applauded. Now, if you really do know everything, Your Highness, then surely it’s no big deal to divide eight ninths into nine fourteenths without the aid of a calculator. Hm?”

“Damned dominatrix devil worshi—”, mumbled.

“What was that? I couldn’t hear you over all that complaining.”

“Eight ninths into nine fourteenths!” he says in a very loud voice.

Grass comes in from the porch at that moment. “What’s all this yelling? I’m trying to read a book here.”

Zeb looks up. “Hey Grass. Try dividing eight ninths into nine fourteenths without the aid of a calculator why don’t you?”

Grass makes a Salvador Sanchez noise. “Well! King Zebulon!”

“Hey Grass. Here’s a quarter. The go F-yourself machine’s in the corner.”

“EEEK!!”

WHAAT?!

“It’s. that. cock. roach. againjesuslord.”

“Zoë, you’ve been freaking out about cockroaches for weeks now, are you sure—”

Zoë isn’t listening. She’s got murder in her eyes. They’re aimed at the giant Palmetto roach, egregious as a 50s pulp horror film’s insectile invader, probing its Martian antennas over the jar on the kitchen counter with the cheesecloth rubberbanded over the lip.

“Oh!” Grass goes. “Oh—oh Jesus.”

“Let me kill it!” comes Zeb’s voice swirling diminutively around Zoë’s ear, as she uses her right hand to claw his worksheets, without looking, into a crude baton, and tiptoes across the linoleum to where the monstrous roach squats with damning impudence.

You—stay—a—way—from—my—BABY!

SWAP!

A total miss. The jar shakes and the contents slosh; the cockroach sprints away into a hole in the grout half its size in the counter’s corner.

“God! Damn it!”

Should’ve let me do it.”

“Wow! What a tiny hole! It’s like a little fire exit!”

“I swear—I’ve tried to do it. I’ve tried to live with the roaches. And I’m all about compassion and all the not harming living things and all.”

“Should’ve let me do it.”

“But when that thing started—prowling around my kom-BU-cha!” (Zoë gets nastily territorial with the stuff.)

“Do you think he’s got, like, a family back there and stuff?”

“—That’s where I draw the line!”

Should have let me do it.”

Zoë stabs the wadded papers in Zeb’s direction. “You. Homework. Now. Or I’m telling your mother you were pouring bleach on anthills again.”

An unmistakable “that’s a good idea” look washes over Zeb’s face.

“I’ll be back to check them in five minutes.”

At the moment she turns, they all jump in place at the strung-out apparition that’s appeared at the bottom of the stairs—all five feet and eight inches of Mary Louise “Grammy/ Meemaw/ Grammar” Prince, her ermined figure pasted under ermine sun top, gunmetal pajama bottoms cascading to the ankle. Queries, Which one of you hangers-on in my daughter’s house knows their way around an i-Cloud?

 

 

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