The Deep End

“I’ll give you two hundred.”

“Come on Les, it’s worth at least five.”

“Maybe back when people knew who you were.”  He shrugged.  “You say you want cash.  All’s I got is two-fifty.  Take it or leave it.”

I sighed.  “Fine, just give me the money.” 

Les opened the register and started counting bills.  “What happened to you man?  You used to be big.  Now you’re walking around shirtless, and I hear from Gary you’ve been selling all your shit.  I didn’t believe it, but now …” 

He finished counting and gave me this look.  It was the same one my character gave that old cowboy during the final shootout in Sunset on Santa Fe, only that one ended with me getting my head blown off.  I always wondered what it’d be like to be on the other side of that exchange, but I’d pawned my .44 magnum a few days ago, so I just shoved the cash in my pocket and left. 

The sun had turned my leather seats to tar, and they smeared against my skin as I peeled out of the parking lot.  I hit the highway and rolled down the windows even though the AC was cranking full blast.  There was something about this heat that I’d never been able to shake, like someone had been cooking me from the inside out for the past eight years, and I was getting to the point of being done.

When the noise got too much, I put the windows back up and turned on the radio.  I don’t know why I bothered.  All they ever talked about was the drought, “Worst we’ve ever seen … No end in sight … We’re burning in a fiery hell …”  They never stop complaining.  As if it’s some big surprise that it doesn’t rain in the desert.  I was getting angry, which made me hot, so I turned off the radio and drove the rest of the way home in silence.

When Ma was alive she’d call my house the billion dollar bungalow just to piss me off.  She thought it was hilarious ’cause with only seven bedrooms and six full baths, mine’s the smallest one on the block.  She wasn’t the only one who found it funny either.  I had to stop reading those trashy celebrity magazines after I moved in here to keep myself from spiraling into a pit of self deprecation.  I guess that’s what a B actor gets if he wants to live next door to the big dogs.  Still, the drought turned their grass just as brown as mine, even if it did take a little longer.

  I pulled into my driveway and looped around to the side entrance, then laughed as I walked inside ’cause if someone saw me they would’ve thought I was trying and rob the place.  Then I really got going ’cause if someone actually did try and rob the place, they’d have picked the one house in the neighborhood that had nothing worth taking.  And by nothing worth taking, I literally mean nothing.

It all started just after the drought began clawing its way up the hill.  Our view of the valley had been brown for so long that it shouldn’t have been a surprise, but when you live on top of the world, you begin to believe that nothing can touch you.  Anyway, I started to get this weird feeling, and the next thing I know I’m selling off all my shit.

It wasn’t that I was strapped for cash.  Lord knows that if all it took to get the weather to cooperate was a few bucks, the whole goddamn town would be underwater.  No, this was something else.  I remember waking up in the middle of the night feeling like I was suffocating.  At first I thought it was the heat, so I turned up the AC.  It got to the point where I had the thermostat set to fifty degrees, and I still wasn’t sleeping. 

Then it dawned on me.  I had fourteen dressers.  Who the fuck needs fourteen dressers?  So I pawned them.  Got a good bit of money too.  Apparently dressers owned by washed-up celebrities go for a lot.  And you know what? I started sleeping again.  So I kept pawning. 

Halfway through the bedrooms, I had accumulated so much cash that I didn’t know where to put it.  I went from room to room with a measuring tape, but the thought of stacking piles of money in my house seemed pretentious.  It wasn’t until I was standing out on my patio, watching my last almond tree die, that it hit me.

Last summer I was forced to drain my pool due to a combination of water restrictions and not being buddy-buddy with the right city officials.  It pissed me off seeing it empty all the time.  Believe it or not, it was never my dream to own a big cement hole.  But that afternoon, listening to the wind hiss in the dead grass, I realized I had the perfect spot to store my cash. 

Okay, so I lied.  I guess there is something worth taking, but technically it’s not in my house. 

I added the money Les gave me, then sat down on the edge with my feet submerged.  The bills ruffled as I kicked, and a few fluttered away on the breeze.  That was all of it.  My house was completely empty, and my pool completely full; seven feet in the deep end.

I haven’t bothered to count it.  It feels petty.  Just seeing that patch of green in my backyard is enough that I can breathe again, and that’s all I was after.  Besides, you don’t count your blades of grass, or the water in your pool.  At least, we never used to.

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Soap Baby

Mama changed after Daphne died. It was weird ‘cause it wasn’t like babies dying was unusual. Marco had gone just the year before, but he was so little we barely got to know him I suppose. Daphne was old enough that she had her own pair of shoes, and she’d even wear them to church when Mama reminded her, so I guess she was kind of the favorite. Even so, something weird happened to Mama once Daphne was gone. Something unnatural.

I remember the day they put her in the ground, and the chewed up patch of dirt next to Marco’s cross that was left over from it. It looked like someone had gotten angry that the grass was growing too even and had to mess it up. Mama stared down at the dirt without blinking, and when Papa tried to put his arm around her, she dropped right to the ground and started rubbing the dirt on her face. It scared us kids pretty bad, and Papa took us inside and told us Mama needed to be alone for a while.

I don’t know for sure how long Mama stood out beside Daphne’s grave. Johnny reckons it was at least a week, but it felt a lot longer to me. After that first day, Papa told us not to disturb her, but he never said why and we didn’t ask. We’d see him bring her food throughout the day and leave it in little piles by her feet. I never saw her eat any of it though, and eventually there was so much of it rotting away that Papa had to stop.

For a while, we fought over who got to watch her from the kitchen window while we did our chores. It wasn’t like she would do anything particularly interesting. Every so often she’d get down on the ground and rub Daphne’s dirt over herself again, and while we all found it pretty funny at first, after the third or fourth time nobody wanted to watch her do it. Eventually Papa boarded up the window.

When she finally did come back inside, she was all covered in dirt and wouldn’t let Papa clean her off. She’d trail mud behind her wherever she went, and the house started to smell dank and acrid. It was especially bad because Mama had taken up the habit of wandering the house like she was looking for something that wouldn’t sit still.

It was an eerie sight. The dirt had turned her skin dark, making her look like the tree out back after it’d been hit by lightning. Jenna started having nightmares and came to sleep in my room, which I didn’t mind to tell the truth ‘cause I could hear Mama pacing the house in the middle of the night and it spooked me half to death.

One time Papa tried to stop her from wandering. He said it was ‘cause he was scared she’d hurt herself, but we could all see the dark circles under his eyes and they looked just like ours. That night, he locked her in Jenna’s old bedroom from the outside right before we went to sleep.

Jenna heard her first. I know this ‘cause I woke up when Jenna started crying, and when I listened, I heard what sounded like someone walking around too fast in the dark. We laid awake holding each other as the sounds got louder, but it wasn’t until Mama started shrieking that Papa woke up. We saw him go flying by in his nightshirt to the room at the end of the hall. Jenna was real scared, so I held her ears and wished someone would do the same for me. Papa must’ve opened the door ‘cause the next thing we knew Mama was down the stairs and out the front door. We raced to the window just in time to see her rolling in the dirt over Daphne. Me and Jenna went back to bed shaking, and Papa decided it was best to let her wander.

Nobody knows when it started, but eventually Mama started carrying around rags and singing at them like they were babies. It was like she missed having something to hold. By that time, she had got real thin. Even under all the dirt you could see her skin stretched too tight over her bones. The wrinkles that used to show up when she was happy all disappeared, and her movements became stiff, like she was afraid she’d rip if she weren’t careful. Jenna and Carl refused to be in the same room with her because they said she was scary, which none of us could deny. I saw how much it hurt Papa though, and so I did my best to pretend I wasn’t afraid.

By the time winter came around and Daphne’s grave was covered in snow, Mama was too weak to wander. Papa set her up in a rocking chair by the windows and all night you could hear her rock back and forth while she sang at her rag babies. The weird thing was the dirt never went away. We all figured that she’d been sneaking into the root cellar and prying up the boards to get at the earth, but after a week in the rocking chair she was just as filthy as ever. It was around then that all the soap in the house started going missing.

Everyone knew it had something to do with Mama, but since she couldn’t get out of the chair we didn’t know how she was doing it. One evening Papa asked me to watch her while he went out. I never liked doing it because she smelled like mildew, but I stood beside her anyway and rocked her as she mumbled to rag baby. Jenna was sleeping on the couch in the other room and I could just see her through the doorway. Mama must’ve thought I was distracted, ‘cause from the corner of my eye I saw her lift up rag baby’s head and caught the perfumed smell of soap. When I looked down she had covered it up, and I knew better than to touch rag baby to find out what she was hiding.

Later that night I woke up when I heard noises from the kitchen. I got out of bed quietly so as to not wake Jenna and tip-toed down the stairs. There was light spilling into the hall, and from the doorway I could see Mama hunched over the table, her dirty shoulders pressing together to the sound of a knife scraping against something chalky. From the lemon smell mixed in with Mama’s damp earth, I knew she had the soap.

I watched her for a long time wondering if I had been dreaming this all along; if I would wake up in the morning and find Mama holding Daphne by the fire. I shut my eyes tight, trying to remember Mama without the dirt. She was pretty then. Her hair used to curl up against her chin, and she smelled like apples all during autumn.

I opened my eyes and saw Mama watching me. She was turned around in the chair and the whites of her eyes looked like they were glowing inside the dirt. For a minute all I could do was stare. My heart was pounding so hard that blood was pooling up in my feet, so when I finally got the sense to run it was like moving through a bog.

I raced all the way upstairs and threw myself under the covers beside Jenna, listening for the sound of Mama following behind. She never did, but from then on I had a hard time sleeping.

This went on for a while. Late at night, I’d wake up and hear the scrape-scraping sounds of Mama’s knife on the soap and I’d know she was working. I kept my mouth shut about what I’d seen that first time though, and every morning we’d find Mama in her rocking chair right where we’d left her, so nobody had any reason to think she’d ever moved. That is until soap baby showed up.

Nobody asked Mama where she got soap baby, and even now I think I’m the only one who knows. At first we were all scared of it. It didn’t move when Mama adjusted its blankets, and its pearly eyes didn’t blink when she kissed it on the nose. But Mama didn’t have dirt on her anymore and the lines on her face started coming back, so nobody said anything and Mama got better.

By April she could walk up the stairs and in May she took her first trip into town. Things were still different though. Mama took soap baby wherever she went, and every once in a while she’d catch a glimpse of the crooked cross beside Marco’s and paused just a little too long. We were all afraid of the dirt coming back, so by June there was only one cross in the yard.

Even still, there were times when I’d find Mama alone and things didn’t feel so right. Normally she’d be cooing at soap baby or watching Jenna in the yard, but sometimes she’d just be staring. Johnny tried to joke about it and said she was recharging her batteries, but I remembered those white eyes in the dirt and didn’t think it was very funny.

This is the part that no one ever believes. I’d been sleeping, but not very well, and I woke up when I heard Jenna get out of bed. I sat up in time to see her sneak off down the hall, and before I let myself wonder why, I got up and followed.

I saw her slip through the door into what was now soap baby’s room. I could tell right then that something was off since Jenna had refused to be alone with soap baby from the beginning, so I hurried after her in case she was sleep walking and woke up screaming like she did sometimes.

When I pushed open the door, I saw the light on in the bathroom across the way. The water was running in the tub and I could feel the warm as I crossed the floor. Soon as I got in, Jenna looked up. She was knelt down over the water with both taps open so they thundered good enough that neither of us tried to speak. We didn’t have to though.

Soap baby didn’t squirm or cry as Jenna held it out over the rising water. The pair of them looked like Father Aarons during a baptism, only we both knew what would happen when soap baby hit that water.

I didn’t try to stop her. Sometimes I hate myself ‘cause of it, but then I think she would’ve found another way. Soap baby wasn’t part of our family. It didn’t belong in a crib and it didn’t deserve our Mama. As soon as it touched the water, foamy bubbles swirled like smoke from its fingers and it began to dissolve. The smell of lemon and honey swept so fast through the bathroom that we both stepped back. And then we hear Mama start shrieking.

Mama flew into the yard so fast none of us even saw her until she reached the patch of ground next to Marco. Papa held us back on the porch and we watched as the dark shape ripped at the earth that had grown back over Daphne. I could feel Jenna shaking, so I grabbed her head and held it to my chest because it wasn’t her fault. Eventually, the night went quiet and we knew Mama was gone.

Jenna still sleeps in my room. She says the one at the end of the hall smells like soap, but I haven’t gone in and checked. We don’t know what happened to Mama. Papa stood out in the yard every evening for about a month, but gave up when the snow started to fall. There are three crosses out there now, and even today the grass over Daphne doesn’t grow quite right.

Grey Road

My grandma lives on a grey road because the road commissioner got a good price on the concrete. His sister had just married Glen Roscoe, who ran a small concrete plant, and though the commissioner thought it strange that Glen hadn’t died out with the rest of the Neanderthals, he knew his sister would be angry if he drove away another husband. So the roads near my grandma went down grey, and the marriage between Glen Roscoe and the commissioner’s sister lasted a record breaking two and a half years.

It was hot when Mom and I pulled up, and the grey road smelled like tar because that’s what they had to fill the potholes when the concrete began to chip away. We walked up to the front door and went in without knocking because Grandma wouldn’t have heard us even if we did.

My grandma’s house has never had the pleasure of being the right size. Mom said it was too small when she lived there, but now grandma complains that it’s too big. If you could see her in it I’m sure you’d agree. She was sitting alone in the living room, half asleep, when we came in.

When my brother and I were little we called her Talking Grandma because mom said Fat Grandma was too mean. The memory prickled uncomfortably when I saw her and realized I wouldn’t call her either anymore. She’s small now because she’s the kind of old where you don’t eat. Her skin has begun to fall away from her bones, folding into messy creases around her joints, and her hands and feet twist like tree roots from the arthritis, which has crept up into her shoulder where it sits like a small animal under her skin.

Grandma woke up then and we talked, though she mostly listened. After a while she said she wanted to go for a ride and so we went. We drove her down the grey streets patched with tar, and even though I know the story about Glen Roscoe and the road commissioner by heart, I felt a little sad that she didn’t tell me again. Instead she fell asleep while my mom kept driving. When we’d pass buildings that my mom used to know she’d turn around and say quietly, “That’s where I met so-and-so” or, “They rebuilt that after it burned down in 1967.”

The roads turned to black as we wove in towards the city where new buildings marched towards the center and there were no potholes filled with tar. Mom stopped telling me about the buildings because they were too new to have any stories, and eventually she turned around and headed back to grandma’s.

The road commissioner is dead now. So is Glen Roscoe and his ex-wife. When arthritis tangled their bones and cataracts clouded their eyes there was no tar to patch them, and so they fell apart like the grey road should have done.

My grandma sits on her couch and looks out her window at it sometimes. My grandma who likes drives into the city, but falls asleep before we reach the end of the grey road. My grandma, who said things like, “The Negros,” only to say later, “The Arabs,” and now who says nothing. My grandma, who’s knotted and broken and alone in a small house that feels too big.

When we left she cried so that her milky eyes turned crystal blue and for a moment I almost recognized her. We stood on the porch and I bent down to hug her, and when we left we could see her in the window looking out at the grey road. Mom swerved to avoid a pothole and said, “Who knows how long grandma will live on a grey road,” but I knew what she meant.

Lester

This morning I burned my finger on the frying pan, so that’s when I knew it would be a bad day.  Don’t get me wrong, I never imagined it would end up like this.  To be fair though, I’ve never been one to “read the signs”.

Lester usually comes over around seven to drop off the paper.  I started getting it delivered to his house because I got sick of the neighbor kids stealing it to roll up and smoke.  I think the ink gets them high.  Anyway, he was late today and didn’t show up until eight-thirty when I was making breakfast.  That’s how I burned my finger.  He came barging in and scared me enough to set my hand down on the pan.

“You’re late,” I told him while I was running my hand under the faucet, but he didn’t seem to care.  He just went about pacing around my kitchen like he had to piss.  I asked him if he needed to, but he said no, so I asked him what he did need, but he said nothing.  That’s when I noticed he didn’t have the paper with him, so I asked him what that was about.

“I know about you,” he says to me, which was just about the dumbest thing I had ever heard ‘cause me and Lester have known about each other for a good twenty years now, and I told him so.

He says, “Not like that,” which is when I start getting a little annoyed because by now my eggs were more burned than my hand, and that alone would be enough to set me off.

“So like what then?” I ask, throwing the burned stuff away and getting ready to start the whole process over.

Lester stopped pacing so that he could look at me through those dumb watery eyes.  It’s a wonder he can still see through them. Sometimes I think he’d be better off just cutting his losses.  Maybe his hearing would improve like they say it does when your eyes quit.  It might be worth it since he can’t hear worth a dime either.

Well, like I said, he wasn’t pacing anymore, but he was shaking pretty bad, and pointing at me like I was something straight off the nighttime program.  So he says again that he knows about me, but I’m still playing dumb at this point because I like Lester.  I’d got a fresh set of eggs in the pan which were sizzling away while we stood there staring at each other.  I thought for a second that maybe he’d drop it, but then he goes and tells me that he saw them down in the basement a few weeks ago.  I have to admit, despite my affections for Lester that made me kind of upset.  It means he was spying, and that’s not very neighborly, now is it?

You see, I gave him every opportunity I could to come to his senses.  Dumb old Lester wouldn’t have it though.  He just had to keep pushing.  It’s a shame.  Really, it is.  The neighbor kids are one thing.  Nobody misses brats like that.  Sure, the parents put on a pretty good show for a week or so, but after a while they realize they’re better off without them.  Lester though… Well, like I said, it’s been a pretty bad day.

The Cloud

The day Stephen came in with the cloud over his head was the day dad stopped talking.  It didn’t happen all at once though.  He yelled a lot of things at first, most of which I didn’t understand, but eventually he stopped and that was the end.

Mom and I were at the table playing that game where you have to guess the murderer.  It was the kid’s version though, so I don’t think anyone really died.  I heard the door open before the others even though my dad was in the living room watching reruns of The Price is Right.  I could never understand why he watched that.  It always ended the same way and he’d always fall asleep before it was over.

I remember bounding up from the table, scattering the game pieces in my excitement.  Stephen hadn’t been home in a few weeks.  He used to visit a lot his first year in college, but as the time passed he’d turn up less frequently.  Mom liked to say he’d found a girlfriend, but I’d never seen her.

I raced down the hallway and into the foyer, ready to throw myself at my older brother like always.  But as I rounded the corner, my socked feet sliding across the tile, I caught sight of him and could tell something was different.  Stephen was standing at the door.  His shoes were still on and he had no bag.  He smiled at me, but just as an afterthought as he listened to the sound of our parent’s shuffling in from the other room.

Dad got there first.  He was smiling, but then he saw the cloud and his face went all hard and made his eyes look like they were bulging out of his head.  When my mom came in from the hall hers did the same thing, but only sadder.

“What the hell is that?”

“Dad…”

“What do you think you’re doing bringing that filth into my home?”

Dad was pointing at the cloud over Stephen’s head as it rumbled anxiously.

“Please, let me explain –”

“Don’t you dare even try.”

Stephen shook while dad yelled.  He said some stuff about how it would ruin the family and make us look bad, but I didn’t really understand why it was such a big deal.  It was just a cloud after all.

“Mom, listen…”

Mom backed away like she did that time I showed her the rat I caught in the basement.

Then Stephen looked at me.

“Tanner…”

Dad grabbed the neck of my shirt and pulled.  I stumbled backwards away from my brother and his cloud which had gone sooty black and was leaking raindrops onto the tile.  Mom picked me up and carried me to my room even though I told her I wasn’t tired.

I could hear dad yelling through the door as mom kissed me goodnight.  I tried to ask her why Stephen was in trouble, but it must have come out wrong because she said I didn’t know what I was talking about.

She shut the light off as she left, but I couldn’t sleep.  I heard Stephen slam the door and a few minutes later dad’s footsteps stomp down the hall and into his office.  Maybe I didn’t understand.  The last time dad had shut himself in his office was when Aunt Amy had died, but as far as I knew everyone was still alive.

Dad didn’t come out for a long time after, and when he did he had gone quiet.  It made mom sad and she would cry during dinner sometimes.  She’d blame it on the onions, but most of the time there weren’t any onions so I knew she was lying.

The next time Stephen came home was to pick up his things which dad had thrown by the curb with a sign that said ‘Free’ propped up on top.  He had the cloud wait in the car while mom let him in through the back door, but she wouldn’t look at him and left the room without saying anything.

I asked him where he was going, but I don’t remember where he said, somewhere that started with an F I think.  He grabbed the peanut butter from the cupboard but didn’t say anything else to me.  He seemed sad, but I didn’t know why.  I felt like I should say something, so I told him I thought his cloud was alright which made it worse because Stephen started to cry.  He hugged me tight, not like he did when Emily’s dog bit me, but like how grandma did when we moved away from Springfield.

Dad came in then.  I thought he was going to yell because he had that face like he was going to, but he just stared at Stephen who didn’t say anything either.  He looked like he wanted to, but I think he couldn’t figure out what it was he wanted to say, so he left.  He hasn’t been back since.

Whenever I asked about Stephen after that dad would leave the room and mom would pretend like she didn’t hear me.  Eventually I stopped asking.  I was wrong about his cloud being alright.  None of the other families have clouds, and all of them can still talk.

Maybe one day he’ll get rid of it and come home.  For dad’s sake.