The Writing Disorder


New Fiction


by Greg November

       Millberg gestures at his sister’s cat with a sweating bottle of Moosehead and tells me he shelled out a hundo to have it de-balled. Oscar, the cat, flops under the kitchen table, which is actually an old card table with rips in the green felt like knife scars, and licks at a section of raw skin on his belly. Millberg shoves the cat with his booted foot and the thing flops over on its side, offended. “He’s not supposed to lick his shaved area,” Millberg says. Rain comes down in torrents, as rain does, and inside the small kitchen I sympathize with Oscar. Days like this I feel neutered.
      “Far as I’m concerned someone owes me a hundred dollars,” Millberg says, leaning down to address the indifferent cat. “Do you hear me, Oscar, you owe me a hundred dollars.” I don’t remind Millberg that no one forced him to fork over the cash to fix Gloria’s cat; no one said, Hey, go engage your uncle in a standoff. But you can’t explain things like that to Millberg. The whole time I’ve known him, which is years now, he’s had his version of the facts and he’s stuck to them. I guess I admire that, the consistency of his grudges, so for now I sit quiet, sipping my beer at the card table, while Millberg’s sense of injustice flares like one of those smoking jobs on the road at night that signal a wreck ahead.
      Dressed in our Painters Plus outfits — paint-splattered beige pants and white tees with the crisscrossed ladder logo — hunkered in the kitchen of Millberg’s two-room apartment, we wait out the weather at a little after eight in the morning with a six-pack of beer. Rain slaps away at slate rooftops, an endless tap-tap-tapping. If painting has an upside, and it may be just this, when there’s weather we don’t work. I don’t think Assram will be handing us an award for dedication any time soon. Other painting tandems find ways to keep busy at the site. You can mix paint, de-gunk brushes, sharpen five-in-ones, or even jaw with the homeowners, give them some of the old neighborly dedication Painters Plus advertises as its signature. But that’s never been Milberg’s way of doing things and up until the recently it hadn’t been mine either. On account of my father’s insurance money running low, I’d spoken to Assram about other opportunities.
      “You want to earn more money,” he said, “you first have to ditch that deadbeat partner.” Millberg was around the other side of the house, maybe working on the siding by the chimney and maybe just staring up at the house. Assram looked off that way and then back at me. “If you’re willing to do that,” he said. “Willing to cut and run from Millberg, maybe I’ll find a place for you in the Interior Training Program.”
      I told Assram I’d have to think about it.
      “That’s fine. I need guys for the shit jobs, but you’re wasted in this slop. Chowder said he would take you on his team. You know what that means? You could be a specialist.”
      I told Assram I’d have to think about it.
      Up to this point, if you asked me I would have said it’s better to be outside, clinging to a ladder hook slung over the peak of a roof thirty feet in the air, than be inside with the specialists. But I’d also begun to feel the pinch, supporting my father, a smoldering lump on the couch since he killed my mother.
      So I was thinking about these things in Millberg’s kitchen as the rain cam down and we weren’t painting. A belly full of beer at eight in the morning didn’t feel as good as I thought it would. Millberg, though, he just sipped away as if perfectly placed in the world. Millberg is stubborn and quick-tempered, and along with those world-class grudges he holds could tell you to buy a round and make you think it was him doing the favor, but he also seemed entirely to appreciate his own personality. He’d been elected president of our senior class back in high school on the strength of that personality, even though it had mostly been a joke. I don’t know. We’d been close for so long I didn’t know how to tell Millberg I was considering going specialist. That might just be the end of things right there. Call me dumb if you want, but it’s strange the value certain people take on for you when circumstances roll a bad way, when your father falls asleep at the wheel and busts through a wooden fence, right into a hundred year old cottonwood, and your mother, unbelted because it rubbed her neck wrong, goes out the window.
      “What are you staring at?” Millberg says, leaning against the sink and sipping from his beer as if posing for an advertisement. The window behind him is open and there’s a growing wetness on the dirty sill. The gray neighborhood unfolds in a gauze of rain. Rainy summer days like this, cool and dark, make it seem absurd that the day of my parents’ wreck, February 2nd, had been sunny, one of those winter afternoons in Connecticut when people talk about how warm the weather is.
      Millberg drops his empty bottle in the sink. The clatter startles Oscar and he darts jerkily from the room. A moment later he returns and weaves about Millberg’s feet.
      “When are you driving Oscar to your uncle’s place?” I say, feeling antsy.
      “The Skunk is bringing Gloria here after school.”
      Millberg calls his uncle the Skunk. Uncle Skunk. He raised Millberg and his sister Gloria, though Gloria was an infant when their parents took a bunch of LSD and decided to run off and live in a yurt in Montana, so she doesn’t hold the same grudges as Millberg. Millberg has told me he’s worried about her, that she may not be strong enough to withstand Uncle Skunk’s indoctrination. That’s the word he actually uses.
       “She’s ten,” I’ve told him. “Who’s strong when they’re ten?”
      So that’s why Millberg paid to have his sister’s cat neutered. In fact, this is what he said to me: “I’m trying to break her history of dependence.”
      “She’s not an alcoholic,” I said.
      But I don’t push things. Millberg and I have an understanding. There’s things we only kid about to a point.
      “Grab me a beer from the fridge,” Millberg says.
      “The fridge,” an orange cooler packed with ice, sits under the card table by my feet. I hand Millberg a fresh Moosehead, the glass bottle cold and wet. Millberg’s actual fridge has been broken since he moved in, and contains his collection of DVDs and some nonperishable canned goods. I tell Millberg I have to urinate — that’s the word I use, just to make him laugh — and he grins around the lip of the bottle. Millberg’s bathroom is small and cramped, like the hold of a ship, and because it protrudes from the side of the kitchen, it’s cold and smells like the outside. I wash my hands afterward and think about my father, whose been urinating through a catheter and crapping in a bag since leaving the hospital a few months ago. The reason he’s not in jail is because my mother’s death in the hospital a day after the wreck was ruled the result of pre-existing complications of the liver. I take care of him these days, the best way I can on housepainter wages, and because the car he totaled was our only one, I walk everywhere (I’d showed up drenched at Millberg’s this morning) though mostly what my father wants is to be left alone. He says I remind him too much of the way things used to be. Sometimes, when I bring my dinner plate in to watch TV with him, he tells me to go eat in the kitchen. When I left the house this morning, while it was still dark, he was asleep on the couch, a blanket my mother knit pulled up to his chin.
      “I’m hungry,” I say, returning from the bathroom, the antsy feeling only getting worse. “If we’re not going to paint, at least we can get some breakfast.”
      “Hold on,” Millberg says, and tips his head back. I watch the movements of his throat as he gulps down the rest of his beer. Millberg is over six feet, slope-shouldered, and has a tall person’s hawk throat. His eyes are glassy when he looks back at me. After a rather impressive belch, the phone rings. Millberg shakes his head as if the ringing is a joke between us. After four rings the answering machine in the other room clicks on. Is Millberg the only person in the world still with an answering machine? The kind that uses a cassette tape? Assram’s voice is tinny and contained. “I want you back at the Ferbil’s place, rain or no rain,” he says. “Make nice with the homeowners, for christsakes. Do you know how it looks when you don’t show up?”
      “How does it look?” Millberg asks me. The answering machine clicks and resets.
       “Come on,” I say. “I’m hungry.”

      Millberg’s two-toned Firebird is parked in the street. He works the ignition twice until the engine turns, unleashing a throaty roar. He gives it gas and swings the wheel around and peels out in a u-turn. The backend fishtails on the slick pavement and I set my arm against the ridge of the window. Waterbury is all rainy concrete as we head through its streets, cloud cover merging into rooftops. The movement of the car helps with the antsy feeling and I look forward to a fried egg sandwich at Lucky’s. Beer sloshes in my stomach and I crack the window.
      When we get there, Millberg and I are hit with heat and the smell of grilled food, but under that the rubbery funk of too many wet coats in one room. The diner is packed with people eating breakfast on a dark summer morning, every table, booth and stool at the bar filled with someone’s ass, and it doesn’t feel quite like July. The place is steamy, raincoats hanging from booth hooks, and looking at the faded walls I wonder when they were last painted. Assram paid commission on jobs we brought in. We wait for a while but no one seems in a rush to leave; backs stay hunched over plates and there’s the low hum of morning conversation, the hiss of coffee brewing.
      “I’ve never noticed how hot it is in this place,” Millberg says.
      Back in the Firebird, we drive around looking for another place to eat. There are places, open places, but we keep driving, Millberg hanging right turn after right turn, the radio scanning all the way up the dial, over the edge, and up again. It’s been five months since the wreck that killed my mother and four since my father’s been home from the hospital. He’s not working now — convalescent leave, they call it — but he says he doesn’t know if he’s ever going back to the university where he taught for almost twenty years, though he hasn’t said how he plans to make money once he’s free of the colostomy bag. In fact, he hasn’t said much of anything to me these past months. I’m five years out of high school and suddenly it seems intolerable to remain in Waterbury another day, doing the same thing I’ve been doing, painting and circling familiar neighborhoods for no reason in a two-toned Firebird. I’m wondering if I could really be an interior guy, one of them, or if I should move away, when I hear Millberg tap his window.
      “There’s the new place,” he says. “Shipshape Cafe. The place Chowder and Murphy painted.” He taps the radio scan button and until we park we listen to Joan Jett, which is fine because my mother’s name was Joanie and there’s comfort in certain things.
      The Shipshape is smaller than Lucky’s, newer and less hazy, with far fewer people; all but three or four of the tables are empty. The walls are painted a green that’s called, I believe, Country Squire.
      Chowder and Murphy, senior specialists, come from another town but are the same age as Millberg and I, and have risen to the top. They get all the best jobs, manage teams below them and swing points off all jobs in the region. “How sad are the lifers?” we liked to say to each other, though five years in and still at the bottom doesn’t sound much better. It hasn’t all be spent painting houses; winters we wash windows, steam-clean carpets — the Plus in Painters Plus — and Assram sometimes sends Chowder and Murphy and their teams out of state to warmer, sunnier places, to paint the homes of high profile clients.
      The hostess, when she greets us quickly with a forced smile, says, “Welcome to Shipshape, home of the Giant Omelet.” She looks familiar and I take a peek at her nametag, which says MAUREEN. She sees me looking and spins around to walk us to our booth.
      “I think that’s Sheep’s kid sister,” I say, taking my seat across from Millberg.
      “Sheep has a sister?” Millberg says.
      “Yes,” I say. “I think that’s her.”
      Sheep, a guy we knew in high school, had enlisted shortly after graduation. He’d done three tours and recently I heard a rumor that he went missing in the mountains somewhere in Afghanistan.
      When Maureen returns she hands us our menus and again notices me looking at her. She’s thin and pale, the same sort of mildly unhealthy complexion I remember Sheep having. Her hair is tied back in a ponytail, and a few damp strands, broken free, hang down over her eyes. She brushes at them absentmindedly.
      “Do I know you?” she says.
      “We’re friends of your brother,” Millberg says, and Maureen’s translucent face twists like she doesn’t understand. He’s about to repeat himself when she turns to me.
      “Yeah, I remember you, Jim. You came over to my house that one time.”
      “Do you remember me?” Millberg says.
      “Well, that’s a shame,” he says.
      “How have you been?” I say.
      “How do you think I’ve been?” For a beat no one says anything. Maureen swipes at the air and says, “I have one more year of high school. This town is the pits, in case you haven’t noticed. This diner sucks, too, no offense, but you should see what they do to the eggs.” Maureen attempts a smile but seems to loose heart in the middle. She shifts her weight from one foot to the other. A pretty girl, if a little frail, she looks like she might cry at any moment.
      “What can you tell us about the Big Omelet, Maureen?” Millberg says.
      “What do you mean?”
      “I mean what is it?”
      “What does it sound like?”
      I watch Maureen show a family of three to a booth on the other side of the restaurant. We called her brother Sheep on account of his bush of curly hair, but I hadn’t actually been all that friendly with him; no one had. Though when he’d come back to Waterbury between his first and second tours, a bunch of us met at some scummy bar with torn dartboards in the back and nothing but cheap beer on tap, and everyone welcomed Sheep warmly, clapping him on the back and buying shots, as if we’d all been good friends. The truth was no one really liked Sheep in high school. It wasn’t that he was weird or mean, just sort of goofy, too ingenuous, and I’d always found it difficult to image him humping through the desert with an eighty-pound pack and an assault rifle. But that night at the bar you’d of thought he’d been the most popular guy around, that maybe he could have been elected class president. The thing everyone joked about was that Sheep’s hair was all gone. His scalp, now that we could see it, had several slight depressions, and looked smaller, too, but heavier, his body more robust, like if you threw a rock at him it would bounce. He smiled a bunch and people wanted to know about the war but he avoided the questions. Shortly after that, when Sheep went back, the rumors about his disappearance began.
      “We should ask her what happened to Sheep,” Millberg says. “Then we’d know.”
      If you’ve ever had a friend like Millberg, maybe you understand the way it goes; maybe you could explain it better.
      The time Maureen remembered me at her house was the only time Sheep and I had interacted outside school. We were partnered together on a project for a class we took senior year, and spent one afternoon of research at his house, though mostly all we did was look for naked pictures of celebrities on the Internet, which was just becoming a thing. Sheep’s dad had a modem that made all sorts of crazy noises that we tried to muffle with a pillow, but his little sister heard and barged in through the door and got a good look at Demi Moore, half-downloaded and topless.
      When I remind Millberg of this story he says it’s boring. “If anything, I’d say you did her a favor.”
      “Well, she remembered my name in any case.”
      “Your name’s on your shirt,” Millberg says. “Right there. Your name is Jim. See? And I’m Jeff.”
      “It doesn’t mean anything,” I say after allowing Millberg his moment of laughter.
      When we’re done eating we leave cash on the table and walk to the front. Maureen leans against the hostess stand, elbow bent and head in one hand. She perks up as we walk by. “Do you remember that day I barged in on you and my brother looking at porn?”
      “It wasn’t porn,” I say.
      Maureen’s face spreads into a wide grin and I see her perfect, small teeth. She crosses her arms. There’s something yellow smudged on one elbow and black straps show through her white shirt. She’s a slight girl, and it looks like I could pick her up with one arm. Millberg says he’ll wait outside.
      “Were you really friends with my brother?” Maureen says. “I always thought no one liked him.”
      “He had plenty of friends,” I say.
      Maureen leans against the hostess stand and almost disappears behind it. “I don’t know about that,” she says. “You were the only one I ever saw at the house. That’s why I remembered you. I think it’s shitty how this town treated Mark. I don’t think any of you knew the kind of guy he was. You all jacked off to him, like it was you who’d joined up.”
      “Wait a second,” I say, but I can’t find a response that isn’t dumb, or worse. I’d forgotten his name was Mark.
      “I’m sorry,” Maureen says, covering her face and then taking her hands away. I see how pretty she is, and I try and make my own face appealing to her. “Anyway,” she says, “maybe I didn’t know him either. I always thought he was a dick. But what little sister doesn’t feel that way?” After a moment, she says, “Did you ever tease him?”
      “No,” I say, thinking that’s probably not true.
      “Well, he never used to complain about you, at least not that I remember. The others, that night he saw you all, when he came back to the house he was laughing about how stupid everyone sounded, how you all wanted to toast him and said you admired his sacrifice. When he stopped laughing he got angry about it. He said you all sounded so dumb, and didn’t understand a thing about anything. He mentioned some names. How dumb certain people were. But he didn’t mention your name.”
      “I didn’t say any of those things.”
      “It doesn’t matter, now.” The sadness in her eyes threatens to leak out all over the place. “Hey, if you ever want to come back to my house, it’d be nice to talk to someone Mark didn’t resent. You don’t have to call. My parents are away this week and I don’t work nights. Mostly I just sit around and watch TV.”
      Millberg is standing by the Firebird, working a toothpick in his mouth, when I come out of the diner. The rain has dwindled to a periodic drizzle and the summer humidity, defeated for a time by the downpour, is creeping back to the air.
      “Did you ask what happened to Sheep?”
      “No,” I say, climbing into the Firebird.

      We drive around for a while, avoiding Assram. The Ferbil’s place is up in Simsbury, on one of those country roads by the farm that sells ice cream. It’s about a forty minute drive — most places in Connecticut are less than an hour away from each other — and when I’d suggested to Millberg that with the rain letting up maybe it was time to get to the jobsite, he looked at me as if I’d asked him to be my date to the prom. When Millberg gets it in his head that he’s got a day off, there’s not much you can say to convince him otherwise.
      As it creeps toward ten, toward the time when we would ordinarily be taking our mid-morning break, we head back to Millberg’s place, Millberg saying he feels the need for more beer. When we get there something seems wrong, but I can’t place what it is. Millberg calls out Oscar’s name and goes looking for the hidden cat. I take a seat at the card table, the antsy feeling back again. It’s not that Assram will blame me for today; he knew I depended on Millberg for a ride, but it sure wouldn’t do any wonders for my reputation. I feel the interior training program slip further away with each second I sit at that card table. When Millberg comes blasting into the kitchen, I’m about to insist we go to the Ferbils.
      “Oscar isn’t here,” he says.
      Of course. The feeling of wrongness I’d felt was in fact catlessness. Millberg kicks at the tiny dish of water he’d set out before we left.
      “I’ll tell you what happened,” Millberg says. “The Skunk came by and swiped him. He wanted to make sure I didn’t grab Gloria and take her away.” Millberg laughs.
      “OK,” I say. “But I don’t see why that’s funny.”
      “It’s not funny.” Millberg is pacing, then he stops and looks at me as if I’d failed to answer a question. “Are you coming with me or not?” he says.
      Millberg’s uncle’s place is on a tree-lined residential street on a hill that overlooks the town and the interstate. We sit for a minute listening to the engine tick. The lawn in front of the house is very green and looks recently mowed. The place has all the feel of order and care and I remember my father wrapped in the blanket on the couch. He hasn’t spent a single night in their old bedroom since coming home. His first day back he pulled the door shut and said if he caught me in there he’d break my legs. Outside, following Millberg across the lawn, I feel something beneath the rain scent, an earthy sort of suburban hum, or that’s not really what it is. I don’t know exactly. A layer, maybe, that sort of covers everything and holds it within certain parameters. From the hill I can see the cemetery where my mother is buried.
      Strewn across the lawn are signs of Millberg’s little sister: a red plastic car, the kind children sit in and move with their feet; a dirty bucket on its side, filled with what looks like grapes; carved in the trunk of a bent dogwood are the words Oscar lives in this tree. In front of the door a concrete slab serves as a porch. Beside the slab a narrow mulch garden wraps around the side of the house, with small stones as a border.
      Millberg knocks and I stand a step behind, tensed. When his uncle opens the door, I feel a surge of unreadiness, if in fact that sort of thing can surge. He’s about fifty, with sandy hair and a flat, peevish face. He frowns when he sees us. I hear a television somewhere in the house; the bouncing, circus sounds of children’s cartoons. “You can’t keep showing up here,” he says.
      “You stole the cat,” Millberg says.
      Stole seems like a strange word, given that the cat didn’t belong to Millberg, and his uncle seems to be thinking something along these lines. He looks at me as if I asked the question. “I remember you,” he says. Then to Millberg, “Listen, Gloria was getting antsy about the cat. She kept asking about it. You know how she gets, with the endless asking. I thought you might be home, on account of the rain and all. You weren’t, so we let ourselves in.”
      What happens next is one of those things that doesn’t make sense. I’ll explain it this way: I missed the start. One moment I was standing behind Millberg and the next moment both Millberg and his uncle were in the mulch garden. I mean they were on the ground; standing one minute and on the ground the next. The wet mulch made no sound. I didn’t see them fall, and I couldn’t tell who brought them to the ground, push or pull, all I know is it happened without my consent or witnessing. In the span of an eye blink. Maybe it was like the one time my father spoke to me about the wreck, while he was still laid up in the hospital. “I didn’t see the tree.” That’s what he said. “Son, I was wide awake but I didn’t see the tree.”
      I recover quickly, bending in a rough approximation of I don’t know what. The effect I have is somewhere in between helping and the opposite and what happens is I end up in the mulch too. I taste it. I mash my hands in pulp to get leverage. We tangle like that, arms, legs, throats, mulch, like we’ve all got real business between us and wrestling on the wet ground is the best way to resolve the conflict, only I’m left out of the whole thing, tugging on shirt collars and prying between limbs, thinking I really belong in Simsbury at the Ferbils. And then Millberg, on all fours, gets free and pats the ground, searching. The uncle sits against the side of the house, ass in mulch and specks of it on the backs of his hands, which hang at his sides. He seems like he wants to laugh, but he doesn’t laugh. We both watch Millberg brush mulch off his bare arms. Our Painters Plus tees wet and flecked with mulch. Then Millberg finds what he’s looking for. His fingers clasp around a small stone from the garden border. This time I react quickly. I couldn’t tell you why now and not before. Maybe I’m expecting it. Maybe that’s what makes the small difference. As Millberg pulls back his arm, I swat the stone from his hand and it clacks against the concrete porch with a hollow sound. Something shiny springs from the stone and makes a small, metallic clatter against the concrete steps. A key. It’s a house key. The uncle takes a swipe through his hair with a mulchy hand. Suddenly we all look up at Gloria, who is standing in the doorway. Tall for her age, she resembles Millberg in her rounded shoulders and avian throat. There’s a bit of brown mulch in her tangle of yellow hair, and some on the lenses of her glasses, which she doesn’t wipe at. How long has she been standing there? Long enough to get hit with flung bits of mulch. She focuses on Millberg and then shows him a childish, wholehearted grin, and says, “You look stupid.” That’s it. Then she’s gone. Away into the house, swallowed by those cartoon honks and beeps, the jingle jangle of animated television.

      When I get home my father is asleep on the couch, the knit blanket spread over his legs and the smell from his loaded crap bag filling the room. There’s a red food stain on his sweatshirt and a plate with the dried remnants of lunch on the floor. I pick up the plate and turn off the television. The plate clatters when I drop it in the sink and run water over it. My father rustles awake. The television pops on.
      “Is that you, Jim?” he says, sleepy sounding.
      “Who else?” I say.
      “Why aren’t you at work?”
      “It’s raining, dad.”
      “Your pants are wet,” he says. “Why are your pants so wet?”
      “It’s raining, dad.”
      It’s a little past four, about the time Millberg and I would usually knock off for the day. Ordinarily, we’d stop for a beer afterwards, and I wouldn’t be home until six or seven. I can’t see my father from where I stand at the sink, but I hear him shift around in the chair and groan. I’d walked home from Millberg’s uncle’s place, after Millberg took off in the Firebird without me. His uncle had invited me in to wash up but I declined, not wanting to face judgment from Gloria the way Millberg had. Walking away from the house I kept my eye on the cemetery, scanning for my mother’s gravestone.
      It took me most of the afternoon, picking along in the wet weeds at the edge of the interstate, getting hit with blasts of air and flung water from the rushing trucks. My pants, as my father saw, were soaked when I got home.
      I hear the volume turn up on the television and head downstairs to shower, lingering under the hot spray, rubbing soap into the cracked and bleeding spots on the back of my hands. Bits of mulch slip down the drain. Afterwards, upstairs again, I change out my father’s bag and he breaths slowly, deliberately, as if trying to talk himself out of something. I decide to take a chance. When I return with the clean bag and it’s hooked to the mechanism I press the button on the television. My father reaches for the remote.
      “Do you want to go visit mom sometime?” I say.
      My father watches me, eyes blank, as if he doesn’t know who I am. He has lapses sometimes, so I start to ask again but he interrupts me. “I heard what you said.” He flicks the television on again with the remote. I’ve had a lot of exchanges like this with my father since he came home.
      “I won’t be home for dinner tonight, dad,” I say, but he doesn’t respond. He’ll probably just fall asleep in his chair without eating anything, his crap bag mysteriously filling still.
      The afternoon has dried out somewhat, leaving puddles in the streets, and as I walk I’m grateful I won’t have to show up soaked to another house. I pull street names and correct turns from somewhere in my brain where I hadn’t known they resided and wonder what else is tucked away in there, waiting only for the right circumstances to reveal itself. It makes me laugh, as I walk sometimes along the side of the road and sometimes right smack in the middle of it, to think about the things my brain knows that I don’t know about. The cuts from the scuffle this afternoon begin to bleed again, so I stuff my hand in my pocket, regretting my decision not to cover them with band aids before leaving. When I see Maureen’s house — Sheep’s house — a modest blue colonial, I realize in all the walking I haven’t thought about what I will say to her, or even why I am there. It’s not too late; I could walk away still. But the day so far has been such a complete waste and that antsy feeling I’d had since drinking beers so early in the morning is back. I cross the street, bleeding hand in pocket, with as much — or even a bit more — confidence as I feel capable. Without thinking I draw hand from pocket to knock and leave a dot of blood on the door.
      “You’re here,” Maureen says, opening
the door. I jam the bloody hand back in my pocket. Maureen is dressed in jeans and a light green t-shirt with a pink horse on it. She looks freshly showered, hair wet and combed. “Why are you sweating?”
      “I walked here.”
      Maureen peers behind me into the street with puddles.
      “I’m serious,” I say. “My dad wrecked our car, so now I walk everywhere.”
      “Good thing we don’t live in the country,” Maureen says. “Come in, I guess.”
      The inside of the house seems vaguely familiar, like a place someone tells you you spent time as a child but that falls just beyond your own memory. The furniture is all dark wood and the floors are spread with complicated rugs. The smell is something like cinnamon and I wonder if Maureen had been baking. I haven’t eaten anything since the Shipeshape this morning. Maureen leads me into the living room, which is sunken, like I guess was popular some time ago. It gives the house a stuck in the past feel that makes it strange that it’s only Maureen and I. The living room is not large and on one wall hangs a large colorful map of the world, with pushpins stuck in three or four European locations and a cluster in the Middle East. The map takes up almost the entire wall. Maureen sees me looking at it.
      “They show the places where my brother has been,” she said. “The red pin always shows where he is currently.”
      “Kandahar, Afghanistan,” I say, locating the red pin.
      “The last we heard from him.” Maureen sits on the couch and props her feet, which I now see are bare, on the coffee table. “I got home not too long ago, so your timing is good,” she says. “I was painting my nails, though. Do you mind if I continue?”
      Caught between the map and the couch I am unsure what to do until Maureen pats the cushion and tells me it will be fine to sit by her. I do, sitting in a somewhat awkward manner with my hand pocketed still, but Maureen doesn’t seem to notice. She returns to her work. The cuffs of her jeans are rolled up revealing ankles and she holds one toe at a time as she dabs at it gently with the tiny brush, turning her toenails a lavender I’m not sure I’ve ever seen on toes before.
      “Where are your folks?” I say.
      “They’ve been gone for most of the summer,” Maureen says, squinting at her foot. “They go on week-long cruises down European rivers and crap like that. They come home for a few days in between each trip, and we buy all sorts of groceries to tide me over until they come home again. I don’t think they like to be here in this house much, with just me.”
       “That must be nice, you know, having the place to yourself.”
      Maureen doesn’t seem convinced. She waves one hand over her foot for a moment and then leans down to blow on it. As she does the back of her shirt rides and I see the white of her lower back, the band from green underwear. She adjusts on the couch to paint her other foot and as she adjusts she places her hand on my leg. She keeps it there only for the small span she needs to set her foot against the edge of the table and then her hand is gone. She doesn’t look at me but her face reddens a bit.
      “So you’re here all by yourself,” I say.
      “Mostly. I have friends, you know. I’m not a leper.”
      After a pause, I say, “This looks like a good house for entertaining.”
      “Whatever that means. My dad has like this fucking sixth sense about his stuff. He’d know if there was a footprint somewhere on the carpet that shouldn’t be there. He knows when I’ve stuck extra pins in the map.” Maureen’s face blushes right after saying this and I think she focuses extra hard on her toes to draw the blood from her cheeks.
      “Why would you do that?” I say, and I know right away this is the response Millberg would have given, unable to control himself. I’m embarrassed, showing up with a hidden bloody hand and prying where obviously Maureen does not want to go. She surprises me by maintaining composure and even smiling a bit.
      “Maybe you don’t know what it’s like, having a brother that goes missing. Sometimes the uncertainty makes you crazy. Maybe I do it just to see if something’s being hidden from me. I get stuff kept from me, you know, being the kid sister and all that crap. What do you think?” Maureen waves and blows at her foot and then displays for me her colorful toes, wiggling them.
      “I’ve never seen a color like that. On feet, I mean.”
      “Oh, good. I don’t like thinking I’m just like everyone else.”
      “Who does?” I say, and Maureen gives me a funny look, my comment the kind of ridiculous, all but meaningless thing people say in place of really saying anything. I wanted to tell Maureen about my mother, that I knew something of loss and uncertainty, that I could sympathize with thinking people close to you had secrets. But I didn’t. Something stopped me. I didn’t know how she would react; I didn’t know if my hand was still bleeding — a secret of my own — and for some reason it curbed whatever courage I thought I’d had when I showed up.
      “Whatever that means,” Maureen says.
      She tells me her feet need time to dry but that when they do we could go and get something to eat. She says she doesn’t want to stay in the house anymore, a feeling I certainly sympathize with. “Would you like something to drink in the meantime?” she says.
      Maureen leaves the room to grab two beers from the fridge and while she’s gone I walk over to the wall map, wondering how recent that red pin is and which pins — if any — have been added by Maureen. There are no dates anywhere on the map, just pins and place names, and that strikes me as odd; wouldn’t they want to keep track of time as well? But then maybe there had been dates and they were stricken from the map. Maybe the family knew exactly what happened to Sheep. Suspicion, I knew, comes in all manner of ways, and suspicion of the living is not the same as suspicion of the dead.
      Behind me Maureen steps back into the room and I turn to see her watching me at the map. She holds two bottle of Sierra Nevada. “Please don’t stand by the map,” she says. “That’s one rule I have. You can’t stand by the map and act like everything is normal.”
      I meet Maureen at the couch and we sit again. She says her parents left the beer fore her. “They’re cool about some things now,” she says. “I think they feel bad leaving me alone all the time, so they make it up with what they think is a cool way to parent. Kind of cutting edge, don’t you think? The wave of the future; children left alone to employ a system of values free of supervision.”
      “How’s it working?”
      “Results are still inconclusive.”
      We both sip from our beers and Maureen makes a face. “How do you drink this crap?” she says.
      “You get used to it,” I say, wondering if that’s true or not. If it’s the taste you get used to or just the unpleasantness.
      “I’ve heard you can get used to anything,” Maureen says. “But I don’t necessarily think that’s true. I think there are certain things, bad things, indescribable things, that you never get used to, that stay as intolerable as they always were and never get any better.” She watches me from behind her beer. “Like what if we were to kiss,” she says. “Right now. You and me. What if I leaned over and planted my lips right against yours?”
      “That would be intolerable?” I say, attempting a joke.
      “Maybe not. Maybe it would be fantastic. Maybe we would fuck right here on my parents’ sofa. I’ve done it before. Why not again today? But afterwards, that’s what I’m talking about. That would be the intolerable part. Right? Regretting something? Taking advantage of someone’s vulnerability. Do you think you’d ever get over that?”
      I watch Maureen with a mix of wonder and something else, something like suspicion. Her chestnut hair frames a pretty heart-shaped face and a crown of mild acne leaks across her forehead. She holds the beer in her lap with two hands and grimaces as she sips, turning from me as she drinks to hide her displeasure with it. “Why is your hand bleeding?” she says.
      I’d removed my hand from its pocket hideaway while Maureen was talking. I didn’t realize I’d done it and now wished I could stuff it away again, but there it was. My left hand, cut knuckles with little glistening dabbles of red. It was a strange location for a band aid anyway, and I doubted I could have used one effectively, in any manner that would have been less suspicious then plain old blood on my hands.
      “Oh,” I say. I start to tell Maureen about Millberg and his uncle, Gloria and Oscar the cat, but none of it comes out right. What I say is some strange mix of all the right details in a different order, like I’d been drunk or asleep when it all happened.
      “Forget it,” Maureen says, stopping me. “You don’t have to explain it if it’s tricky. I get that. Just please, could you please put that bloody hand in your pocket?”
      Maureen goes to dry her hair. “You caught me mid-process,” she says. She’s gone for a while and I stare at the map, hand curled inside my pants pocket. I can’t help but think about Sheep, humping through the desert or locked in a bamboo cage or dead somewhere in a pile of wreckage and sand. Someone had given an automatic weapon and an incredible task to a goofy kid who I’d spent one afternoon with downloading naked celebrities. And here I was with his sister. Doing what, exactly? I still wasn’t sure why I’d come, but something in the way Maureen had been acting made the question irrelevant. She didn’t seem to care one way or the other. I had shown up at her door and she let me in, we’d been talking, and now she was off in some other room drying her hair. There’s nothing to explain. I didn’t know what to make of her imaginary proposition, but alone in her living room, holding a bottle of beer — it felt like I’d spent the better part of this day drinking beer — I found myself unable to look at the map. I sat so it was beyond my peripheral vision. I felt Sheep’s eyes in the map, watching me. He didn’t threaten me with anything, or look on with menace or skepticism. None of that. What I felt from the map was patience. Sheep watched me with the patience of a Chinese guru, and it made me want to run screaming from his house.
      My mother, before she died, had urged me to go to college right away.
      “There’s no draft anymore, Joanie,” my father said, grilling hamburgers or yanking open a bottle of wine. We were outside in the backyard in any case, enjoying the nice weather. “There’s nothing to hide from these days.”
      My father congratulated me on my patience when I signed up with Painters Plus, saying it was a mature decision, saying I would gain perspective and earn a little money, which would make college, when I eventually decided to go, worthwhile. Being a teacher himself he saw more than his share of unprepared high school grads rush into college and flame out in a spectacular show of poor grades and partying, but when more than a couple years went by and I was still painting, he grew skeptical of my maturity. And then the thing with my mother happened. Now there was no talking to him at all.
      When Maureen comes back she’s in a different outfit, a white dress that stops just below her knees, and her hair is dry, hanging along her shoulders. Her feet are in flip flips, showing off those lavender toenails. “Did you say you walked here?” she says. “That your dad wrecked the family car?”
      “He did.”
      “Why doesn’t he just buy a new car? Do your parents walk everywhere too?”
      “My mom died in the wreck,” I say. “Actually it was a day later, but it was the wreck that did it. My dad hasn’t worked in months. He doesn’t leave the house.”
      Maureen watches me, trying to figure out where I’m coming from. It’s a look I’m used to. “That’s terrible,” she says.
      “I don’t even think about it most days,” I say. “But that’s why I walk everywhere. Not because I’m afraid. That was our only car.”
      Maureen remains at the top of the step, me on the couch swung so the map is behind me, and the space between us feels compressed, charged. “That seems strange to me,” Maureen says, “that you don’t think about it. Seems to me it’d be all there even was to think about.”
      “That’s because you’re young,” I say. Immediately I see it is a stupid thing to say, and, probably the only thing I could have said that would have the effect it did. Maureen laughs. She puts a hand to her face to conceal it, but the laughter sneaks through her fingers. “I’m sorry,” she says. “You sound like an old man. You and Mark are the same age, right?” She keeps on laughing, and it’s actually something of a remarkable thing. In the middle of all the laughing, she sits down on that step and looks at her toenails, laughter leaking out. “Where are you coming from when you say a thing like that?”
      I don’t know how to answer. I don’t answer. I watch Maureen recover from her laughing jag and it’s like something has changed between us. “I’m hungry,” she says, and I remember I am, too. Actually I’m famished, a little buzzed even from the single beer, and so hungry I can’t believe it wasn’t forefront on my mind until now. “Me too,” I say. “I haven’t eaten in ages.”
      We head in the direction of downtown without deciding on a specific location, and on the way I tell Maureen about the interior painting course, about Assram’s offer and the increased money and all that. It feels good to tell someone the things that had been sitting in my head. I’d had no one to tell until now. When I get to the part about having to ditch Millberg in order to move up the ladder, so to speak, to become a specialist, Maureen stops in the middle of the sidewalk. Suddenly she is quite serious. “What are you waiting for?” she says, grabbing hold of my mind.
      “It’s not that easy—”
      Maureen looks like she wants to slug me in the face. “What other question even is there?” she says, holding our hands between us like to drop them would hurt. “What on earth are you waiting for?”

Greg November has an MFA in fiction from UC, Irvine, and his stories have been published in Orange Coast Review, Philly Fiction, as well as other publications.

COMMENT        HOME       BLOG

New Fiction

by Greg November

by Ashley Inguanta

by Brooke Kwikkel

by Tegan Webb

by Ruth Webb

by Edward Wells

by Tantra Bensko

by Keith Laufenbarg

by Robert Sachs


An Introduction
to Deltiology

By accessing this site, you accept these Terms and Conditions.
Copyright © 2010-2012 ™ — All rights reserved