[ToC

 

3 STORIES

Alicia Wright

SISTER

Sister is preparing for her great-niece's engagement party. Already the occasion strains her, her great-niece's house several miles outside the city, with a guest list of younger people she does not know, and of whom she has heard neither good nor ill, and does not recognize their names. Her great-nieces supplied her with the list. Sister suggested it be held at the country club, accessible to her by old-fashioned streetcar, and more appropriate to boot, than a featureless house in the bursting suburbs, where she has never been. Both of her great-nieces are tall and blonde, like their mother, but not nearly as beautiful. Her niece is more beautiful than Sister's own sister, though she has had bad luck with men. When Sister stands besides them, posing, the crest of her hair only just reaches their bosom. This great-niece in question, marrying again after a tragic circumstance, is kind to her, and brings a tape recorder when she comes to talk with her. This great-niece is less concerned with recording her play piano, her most outstanding skill, than with hearing Sister talk, which she finds a bit funny, and occasionally embarrassing, when she hears herself saying something distending out of her more ordinary composure. It is not often she must hear herself hearing herself. She has lived alone so far, and it has been a long time since a suitor expressed interest. She has her pianism, giving lessons out of her parlor, and her rules for living: one can do quite well when one harmonizes with one's surroundings, whether in clothing, sound, or manner. She has carefully written these in script on her best stationery for her great-niece on this go-round with marriage, though she herself never did manage it. Approval, especially a mother's, can be scarce. Her foray to Chicago coincided with her younger sister's elopement, or great shame, with her brother-in-law who brought height, yes, but abiding precarity for her position in town. Her hands, though she would not admit it this evening, are swollen, though for tonight she will wear the appropriate gloves, elbow length. Her great-niece's fiancé comes from a family she'd heard of, yes, but her great-niece was trying things from another angle, a family of politicians from farther north in the state. No, they were not like her, folded quietly, seamlessly, into that social fabric, an unplayed grace note, as quiet as a yellowed pearl.

At the party, Sister seeks out her great-niece, avoids olives pierced with little sticks. Yet her great-niece is difficult to reach, and there is no rhythm of dancing, or organization of any kind that she could tell, which would allow her an opening, a tangential station which would connect her. Her niece, the beautiful one, attracts husbands, sends them radiating back out into the crowded living room. No reception. Sister finds she needs the powder room, immediately. When the door with the cool handle appears, her gratitude swells, but the small dark room's floor falls out from underneath her, becomes a staircase, and, she understands, here, her repose will only hold her so long.

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FRESHLY PAINTED CABINETS

That her apartment faces a tall hill filled with bodies, old ones, and mausoleums plus a new one built to look like a new old building, isn't what bothers her. It's that her parents' friends, Cal and Bitsy, have given her another armchair that's gigantic, it eats the fucking room, and that her kitchen really is old. She can't bring guys here, not ever, not while the cabinets are still cheap chestnut sheen, like dried up sour cherries left out on the concrete in the sun underneath the trashcan for a week. The landlord doesn't mind when she picks up projects, like retiling the shower like her friend's condo in Atlanta, or replacing the electric stove. The backyard's okay. She built the fire pit herself, but there's not a whole lot to be done about the fact that the fence only covers three sides of the yard, how the honeysuckle bush is slowly swelling over it. The patched grass corner is enough for the dog to run around in, and her dog always comes back. The apartment's in a zone where nobody cares enough to get the rules right, or hold anyone to them. This mostly means she gets to do her thing, whatever that may be.

She walks home to the apartment every day from the law office downtown, and when she's not doing the paralegal thing, she alternates shifts with her mom at the expensive gourmet kitchen store or bartends for the parties of her friends' parents, or worse, her high school classmates' weddings. After those, coming home to the apartment stings—she feels like a berserk hornet, but she won't tear apart the apartment like she used to now that the dog lives there too. He's a blue-eyed Australian shepherd she rescued, and when she looks at him, she thinks the dog is beautiful, and remembers going to Australia for a tennis tournament back when she still played, though she was very young.

Even while she washes the dog's silky, patchwork fur, untangling the burs that snag its edges, wiping away the cemetery's grass trimmings, she thinks of the next country she would like to visit—Ecuador, or Peru—and feels a pang of anger that she is not allowed to bring him with her. Or that no one else has the time, or money, to sign up for trips like that right now. She wishes, as the shampoo's suds puff up the dog's fur like sea foam, that a guy would accompany her. If a guy comes on a trip, that might be fun. That's all. The dog despises baths, his eyes rolling around in his head, and he trembles like a weak thing. She is unsure whether to order him to calm down or to just get it over with. She'll have to do it all over again in a week or two, so it hardly matters. As she reaches for a towel, she catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror, wonders what if the mirror were hung on a wall in Paris—she's never told Brandon that's where she wants most to end up. The dog, slick and small, slips out the screen door she keeps ajar, and disappears. Her phone lights up after she's called out his name every few minutes from the backyard—the dog's run up to the bar, a few blocks away, where she usually takes him in the evenings to meet guys after work. Brandon might be there tonight, maybe even with a different girl before she gets there. She's found the texts that prove it, anyway. Even though it's their favorite bar, she's chanced it by bringing different guys there, too. So far, so good. No guy overlap.

She just wants her body against his body. She resists her vibrator because she wants to build up desire, which feels so much like rage, but fun, for Landon. Landon is better than Brandon because Landon is tall, from Kansas, and she actually wants to have sex with him, not just share Blue Apron ingredients and wait for him to ignore her. Her friends tolerate Brandon because he doesn't say much. Just because of that one time when Brandon got her drunk and took her back to the apartment, her woke friend hasn't forgiven him—she maybe even hates him, which is annoying. Landon, at least, finished both college and grad school, she knows, though they've gone on two dates which she hated. He talks about moving different piles of dirt around, as far as she can tell, because he manages the quarry out in the county.

Landon knows how long she's lived in the town, but there are still some things she hasn't told him. He has never been to Birmingham or Atlanta but he wants to see them. She's trying hard not to come on too fast, and she coaches herself, though she already loves how her feet are smaller than his, how when they lay in bed, her small feet graze halfway down his toned calves. She prizes how he presses his face into the springing curls of her hair, how he says she is the realest woman he has ever met, that she is athletic, and beautiful. Her phone's periods of uncomfortable silence are more frequently interrupted by him laughing, Ha ha, or, at a peak of their conversation—Do you want to hang out again? She still hasn't mentioned him to Brandon, but it is unlikely that he'd notice. It weirds her out how freely she can move through the small town with Landon, not Brandon, at the brewery, or at the baseball game. They made out in the car, and hardcore made out in his driveway after she'd driven him to his place, a whole house on a smaller hill downtown that he'd just bought. Her mouth was dry after these makeouts, and the drinking, and she was already thinking of the hair framing her nipples, that she'd need to find a way to shave them so he didn't think she was Sasquatch, so she asked for a cup for water and then went with it to the bathroom. His cabinets in the bathroom had a dull mahogany veneer, too, though they paired with the speckled marble countertop and the siding along the floor where the broad tiles aligned perfectly with the wall, their specific edges like the diamonds in her younger sister's engagement ring. She used his razor, admiring its shiny handle and weight in her hand. The sex itself was quick and apologetic, as it had been over a year for him since he'd last done it, and, perplexingly, she hadn't minded.

Landon is suggesting going to another baseball game, or, if it rains, they could always pick up something from Red Box. She and Brandon are sitting next to each other, each having lunch by the river. Landon wants to see her place, and she wonders if he wants to have sex there too. It's not a bad idea—he could see the pictures she's taken of her trips, mountains in different countries, her and her sisters skiing, all red-headed, or on a cruise, that she's put up on the walls. He could see how she's repurposed an old wood mantelpiece, carved designs and paint still flaking, as a headboard for her bed, and admire how she's fastened it to the bed's frame so that it doesn't bust through the drywall when she's doing it. Before Landon comes over, Brandon has said he'll help her move the overstuffed, oversized armchair over to her parents' garage, but she'll need to come up with a good reason why Brandon can't stay over afterward. It occurs to her that Brandon won't be taking the dog on long runs anymore if she keeps this up with Landon, but Landon also might be a runner, too. Brandon offers to help her paint the hideous kitchen cabinets, though she is already planning how she'll lay plastic over the warped floor, the shallow sink, the peeling laminate counter, put the dog outside, and sand down the cabinets so that the paint'll stick, and outline them in blue painting tape. She doesn't note the color of the paint she'll use. Her arm glides up and down in its ball socket, the gesture so familiar to her, the paint roller flush and dripping, the reach of her full extension coming just up to the ceiling and no farther.

 

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ANAMNESIS

When Helen lays her hands on me, I feel, rather than the weight of family contact or fleeting sexual prelude, levity, as though her hands, when they cup the crest of my head like a melon or when they push into the tender dip between my big and second toe, are empty. She asks me questions, which I answer using pointless words. She records each session on a cassette player, which I had to buy especially at the faded box store back in town. She exhales in different pitches and patiently, in stages, explains her cosmology of healing to me. She relays the language that I'm not saying, that she hears, and the conversations that others are having with me, their truths and pauses. After sessions, held on a terrycloth-covered table in the center of her bedroom, it is common to be overwhelmed into a honeyed sleep. I will sleep for hours on her sofa downstairs, even while she takes other sessions.
           
I've begun staying at Helen's house more and more, and overnight. She has a spare room that used to be her daughter's. I'll call when I am constricted by my apartment, when the cinderblocks I know compose its walls stop breathing, and I stop breathing too. I'll call when I have any project due, when I have to write anything at all. Helen can hear when I will call before I do, and will say that she's just changed the sheets for me, or is making eggs for when I arrive. Though she lives only a few fields away, I feel that when I call, it is from across a very long distance. I am not telling my friends when I go over anymore, though they wouldn't want to come with me. Helen makes them nervous, a woman living alone with her dog in a maple grove, and because my friends don't want to know any more about themselves than they already do. For them, I think, it would interfere with their living.

Her house, Helen tells me, is designed like a boat, and it has long rampways extending to an above-ground pool behind it which I never use, though that is the vantage, Helen points out, from which the house most resembles its boat-form. Inside the walls are pink, and the carpeted floors dense and cool, even in summer. I wouldn't say I like the color, though it is pleasant when lit by string lights, as was my bedroom growing up, but I won't be seeing that room again. It's as though I've taken that space, inflated it into an alternative universe, loosed it, and come to live here instead.

I'm not the first one Helen has taken under her wing. I hear a lot about Ben, a kid who traveled with her all the way from Alaska, where she was previously living, and how Ben's anger eventually meant that she had to excise him, and stop giving him money. There's also a band of local kids who grew up blazing down gravel county roads to country houses in various states of construction. Jay is the most charming, and he reminds Helen very much of Ben. Jay also has a lot of money, and didn't need to go to college. He buys his friends plenty of drugs, and they cycle between festivals and recuperating at Helen's, flushing the toxins from their systems with Helen's help, crammed together in Helen's small sauna, giggling. I've never used the sauna. I'm not at all on their radar, really, except that sometimes Helen will arrange for Jay to be over when I'm not. Helen tells each of us about the other, which means there isn't much need for us to talk.

There's no one cause or reason why I'm here, except that living in my body has become untenable, and that everyone I prefer talking to has crossed over, and Helen, when she has permission from them and me, fields contact, questions, or languages that we used between each other, organizes feelings into simpler, sometimes made-up, words. How could Helen know, for instance, that Izzy was wearing my favorite jeans she'd stolen from me when she died? How could she know they were still on the ocean floor? She had known, in our first meeting, that there were thirteen people waiting for me on the other side. Helen had confirmed that my dream the night before the accident was real, that the events, as I had seen them, had really happened the way I saw them. Helen hears my language before I say it, and waits for me to say it, and I'm grateful, whose mouth it comes from no longer mattering. Love and light, Helen repeats, endless love.

Helen says that this in my ninth life, which makes me neither new nor very experienced with being here. According to her, you should only know about your past lives if you're encountering previous people or feelings in your present one, or if you've brought in a pattern that keeps you locked in pain, which Helen can help with. I know, for instance, that in my last life I died in a fire, which is why I so strongly dislike being shut in my apartment. I know that in this life, the man who raped me has done the same to at least five other women, and that he did this in almost all his previous lives. That is why it was so easy for him. Helen also says that I have always been a writer, even in my other lives as a woman, and that only once have I been a man, which was enough for me. I have started, in my sleep, seeing and receiving people who I don't know, their peril, their terrors, like sinkholes in my chest, their faces slinking into my dream's eye view. Helen says they sense my own abilities to heal, or, more often, that they are trying to reach her through me.

I brought a guy to Helen's once, hoping that he would see me more clearly, and begin to feel a calmness that I sensed he did not have. Nick looked petrified as we drove over, the snow clouds from the blizzard snaking over the two-lane road I couldn't see, but knew from memory. I was so happy that Nick would soon know more about himself, or be brought to something deeper, through Helen. The first session is a revelation, and many new clients do not know how to respond to this kind of touch and contact. Helen took our picture in the living room before his session. He looks uncertain, but leaning toward me, and, symmetrically, both our hands are balled into fists, gripping ourselves, as we weren't really dating, but trying to. I look as happy as I felt. The session lasted half an hour longer than they normally do. Afterward, Helen quietly murmured to me that Nick wasn't ready, out of his earshot, but then told us we had been married in our most recent past life. We did have a familiar way with each other, though we were different, and had lived on different sides of the planet before we'd met. Before, Nick had left a cigarette lit one night, which blazed through our bed where I'd been sleeping. We had been drawn to each other in this life so that he could make amends. Nick apologizing sounded from across a long, interminable distance, I felt, though it touched something in me, but it doesn't keep me any more alive.

 

 

 

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I am new to writing fiction, so it is a surprise to experience this spectral voice appear, be weird, and kind of haunt each of these definitely southern characters. I suggest, as accompaniment to the first two stories, [making cheese straws] (we ought to be on better terms before I share my family's recipe) (and they don't look right in that picture...squeeze 'em out of a cookie press instead). You can explore the aforementioned cemetery [through this app], though I cannot say I am familiar with the "Human Bunny" landmark. If you have any other messages for me, try them in a dream first.