Fiction • Anna Noyes
At O’Connor’s store today everyone, even the coffee brandy crowd in the back room, especially them, seemed to know Dad was dead. A place like Treelaw you can’t keep anything to yourself. Dollie O’Connor leaned over the counter to make her loud, phlegmy apologies, then peered down at my kid to say, “I hope you have it better than your folks, little lady. Don’t you throw out your life like Granddad did.” Kimmy’s three and just learning it’s polite to shake hands, so she stuck out her hand, red from the Fla-Vor-Ice we shared in the car, but hid her face in my skirt.
“Isn’t she cunning?” said Dollie. She said it like the words were something sour to spit out. Kimmy’s breath was hot against my leg. I was thinking all babies are mouth breathers. I was thinking too that Dollie is a cunt. Everyone knows about the six-inch scar she gave her ex-boyfriend pushing him into scrap metal, and there’s only one rotty peach for sale because she spent the store money on pills. It’s no secret Dollie snuck by a neighbor’s trailer where her boyfriend was sleeping around and killed all the chickens and a pig.
But I didn’t feel the need to air this out in the middle of the store. Dollie totaled me up and I was short, so instead of making any kind of scene digging for coins I put Kimmy’s whoopie pie back, thinking a skinny kid’s got enough problems, then changed my mind and had Dollie strike Drill’s Roulette Riches. The register went haywire and spit out a long, white slip, and that’s when the bell above the door dinged and Mandy walked in. I knew her before she looked up—that frizzy blonde braid, circles under her eyes just like Grace, her arms clicking with bracelets. When she spotted me I looked away quick so we had a chance at pretending we didn’t recognize each other. I could feel heat move from my cheeks to my ears and my right eye wandering like it did when I lied.
“Hey,” she said soft, and I thought, This is it, she’ll call me out in front of Dollie and the line crowding behind me, in front of Kimmy who has her mouth full of whoopie pie, but Mandy just put her arms around me.
“I’m so sorry about your dad,” she said against my neck.
There wasn’t a thing I could think that would be good enough to say.
“How’s life?” I said. “How’s your mom?”
“Oh, you know, school. Mom’s okay. Not great.” She pulled back to look at me, and she looked at me long and hard.
Balancing my bag on one arm, I grabbed Kimmy’s sticky hand. “Hey, meet my kid. Kimmy, say hi to Mandy.” She stared at Mandy from behind my legs and didn’t say anything or smile.
“She looks just like you,” Mandy said.
A part of me was happy because Kimmy was mine and loved me and would forget Mandy as soon as we got out of the store.
“Well, I’ll let you two go,” Mandy said. “You’re my family. You’re both my family, no matter what.”
“Bye,” said Kimmy.
I told her she was a good, polite girl. She clung to my legs as we backed out the door, so in sync we didn’t trip.
No matter what. Kimmy started crying and she didn’t seem to know why.
I once saw a birth on television where the mom labored in a bath, and all her friends and her mom were around her. The baby was born underwater, calm, and it floated and held its breath right off. That’s how I pictured Kimmy being born, Grace and Mandy with me, even though of course it couldn’t be like that.
Kimmy was born with just Drill at the hospital. He spent the labor flipping through this Toyota engine manual to see if he couldn’t fix up that free car he’d got down in Augusta, and wouldn’t the baby like a new car. The drugs made my vision blurry, and when they put her on my chest I couldn’t focus on her face.
How I was born, Dad always said, was my mom got caught smuggling pills from Canada. He told me she quit her birth control soon after so the judge might pity the pregnant lady. I wanted to know her better than this and used to steal her photo from Dad’s drawer. It was black and white. In it she was leaning back against a tree. She wore a cropped shirt that showed her belly button. She was stabbed in prison, and I wondered where on her body, and why. In the picture she had nice teeth.
Dad said he took the picture, but I don’t believe it, the way she’s looking at the camera. My guess is she hated him. My guess is she was looking at me, even if she didn’t know it. Like she knew I’d spend all night lying with my dog on the carpet Dad’s shuffling had worn to something hard and slippery, looking back at her.
Dad was a wormer his whole life. He was also a steersman, and between seasons lay in bed, a bowl of thawed clams on his belly and another bowl on his legs for the shells.
We lived together on the street Dad grew up on, the same street where three of his sisters lived. Two of them wouldn’t talk to Dad, and the aunt that stayed friendly told me he only saved me from foster care for the welfare checks, but anyways he stopped getting money when I was nine and didn’t send me back into care, so that can’t have been the whole truth. That’s how it’s always been in this town, people saying shitty things to try and turn normal people into monsters. Dad only touched me twice. Both times he was gentle and looked bewildered, like my body wasn’t the one he expected, but it was too late, too embarrassing for us both, to turn back.
The first time I ever talked to Grace she didn’t ask why I was calling so late on a school night, just said, “Hold on, sweetie,” and woke Mandy up. Mandy and me did show choir at school together. I felt like I had to say something big so I told her Dad had punched out all the windows in the boathouse, which he had done, just not that night, but the field was still shiny with glass so the story seemed real enough.
Before Grace and Mandy pulled into Dad’s drive they cut their headlights. I sprinted to the car and Mandy and I sank low in the backseat and shrieked, full of the thrill of the kidnapping. We peeked at the bonfire going in Chambers’ lot, sparks hissing off a burning couch, and I recognized my cousin swaying by the fire. I knew it was her from a distance by her permed hair, and she was topless.
The streets in Alma were quiet and moonlit. Their house was all by itself down a paved drive, with lawns on either side and the path to their doorstep lined with lamps that ran off stored-up sunshine. Behind the house, waves crashed on the beach, when in Treelaw I’d had to walk two miles to the wharf if I wanted the water. The rooms were bright with lamps and vases of cut flowers and furniture that looked like it should be roped off, like it wasn’t safe to touch. Their two white cats rubbed against my sneakers. My bed was tucked under the slanted ceiling in Mandy’s bedroom. It was like sleeping in a boat’s cabin, and I could stay as long as I needed. Bronze and gold animal figurines lined the windowsill that looked out on the ocean. I rearranged them.
I remember Grace giving her name to the Alma pool attendant, then saying “and my daughters,” each time me thinking they’d catch her in the lie. I stood behind Mandy, with her pale hair and bikini same as Grace, in my gym shorts and T-shirt, trying to hide my face.
Mandy and I dedicated love songs over the radio to boys from school. My voice, when it played through the speakers, sounded like a stranger’s—high-pitched and smooth and older. I wanted to block my ears. We practiced slow dancing with each other.
At night, with Grace, we often walked down the wide, empty road to the lamplight at the end of the pier and watched the water for bloodworms, which Mandy and Grace thought were eels, and I didn’t tell them the difference. My dad called the worms dimes, because they sold at ten cents each, hardly worth him bending down for. I pictured the worms as dimes, silver and quick, hard to tell apart from the light on the water.
It didn’t take two trips home to empty out my half of the dresser and pack my deodorant and eye makeup and slippers into a garbage bag. Dad had piled beaver hides all over my bed. He was saving up to sew himself a blanket. The beavers still had their heads.
“I’m going to find myself a nice, plump blonde once I get that blanket made,” he said. “Cuddle up for the winter.” He eyed Grace, who waited in the car with her engine idling. “She’d do,” he said. “She want to come inside?” I tried to laugh with him.
When there was nothing left of mine at home I made up excuses for Grace to drive me back: a diary that didn’t exist, a favorite pillow. I found him curled up on the floor. Down the front of his shirt was a white, watery stain.
“There she is,” he said, covering the stain with his hand. “Whoops.”
He wrapped three fried pike in a napkin for me to share with Grace and Mandy. I thought of Grace eating around the eyes and tail fins and threw the fish into the brush, hiding the warm, oily napkin in my pocket.
Scotty Snotty brought lice back to school, and Mandy was the next person to get them, because he put his hat on her head during recess. We had to take baths together so Grace could shampoo our hair with medicine and set the timer for how long they took to die. After we were toweled off but before the bathwater drained, we snuck back to look at the dead lice floating on top of the water, which was horrible but we had to. The shampoo and combing left our hair shiny and soft, but then a week later she’d catch us scratching. Grace worked her way through all the shampoo brands. Eventually she said maybe it was me bringing them back each time I paid a visit to my dad.
I was homesick every day. But I didn’t want to go back home, to the bathroom mirror covered in toothpaste splatter and the woods behind the house full of camouflaged traps and bleached bones, and the middle-of-the-night infomercials—"Set It and Forget It" chicken rotisserie and the knife that cut through a can like it was butter.
I stole Nicorette from Dad’s bedroom and let Mandy pop four pieces into her mouth, thinking she was chewing regular gum. It made her throw up.
Why do I do what I do? When I was little I’d wake up in the night and pee in the wicker wastebasket in the living room. I did this for months. The house was thick with the smell, and Dad blamed it on the dog. I knew he was thinking of getting rid of our dog, and I did it again, and he got rid of her. I really don’t know, I just did it because.
I began calling my dad at bedtime and begging him to come for me. When he finally came, Mandy and I could hear his truck’s muffler from a mile away. The cats sprung from their chairs to hide under the bed. I met him in the dark drive with my garbage bag of clothes. Grace had kept my clothes neatly stacked in Mandy’s dresser, smelling of ocean mist detergent.
I scrubbed the dishes piled high in Dad’s sink, but rings still stained the coffee mugs, and the pot always held the black outline of rice grains where the rice had burned. When I called Mandy, Grace answered. “This is too hard,” she said. “We love you, but you know it’s been too hard.” I hung up and went over to my cousin’s and did whippits until my face was numb.
All I can remember of the poem I slipped under Mandy’s locker door is that it started “If there is a thing called love” and talked about her being like my sister. Mandy never wrote me back, but she wasn’t mean about it.
Instead of school I snaked the sink drain, wiped the black fur off the top of the fan blades, cleaned the boathouse of old bait, and hosed down the floor where blood from dressing deer stained on its way to the drain. After years of lying on the carpet and grit imprinting my skin, I liked the sound of dirt sucking into the vacuum. I found pills stashed in a Folgers can beneath Dad’s bed, and a rusted tackle box full of hooks, and with them another picture of Mom. She had her back to the camera, but I knew it was her from her long hair, thick and wavy as a pelt. I tucked the picture into my pillowcase so I could feel its scalloped edge on my cheek.
It turned out Drill Kane was looking for a helper. My dad warned me about Drill—said as a teenager he stole lobsters from another man’s trap, and when they’d fished together Drill hadn’t tied the bait barrels down snug, and choppy waves had sent them sliding overboard. He had my dad’s type of weatherworn face but was fifteen years younger, with blond curls that got him picked on.
At the wharf Drill looked me over, circling, squeezing my biceps. He was shorter than me but he strutted like a bantam. 207 was tattooed across his throat, and I touched the area code with my fingertips. “That hurt?” I said, but he just swallowed against my fingers. Drill dressed me in his old oil gear and it fit fine, but his boots and gloves made me look six years old.
“You’ll do,” Drill said. He bought me a new pair of boots that were still too big, so if I got caught on a trap it would drag the boot underwater instead of me. She was a beauty, Drill bragged, twenty-eight feet long, fiberglass, a John Deere engine he put in himself. Her name was the Theresa, after Drill’s scabby-faced ex-girlfriend, but these days she’s called the Kimberly Rose.
Being home with Kimmy now, I miss mornings alone on the bow most of all, when the wind wasn’t stirred up yet, and light was just coming soft over the islands. I miss feeling the flex of new muscles that I didn’t know I had, and the ache in my arms from hauling traps, and in my legs from keeping steady on the slick deck. It felt good to be starved by the time we were done setting traps, feeling quick and light, and after that first day the boat’s smell didn’t bother me at all. It was with me all night, no matter how clean I got. Salt. In my dreams I’d bait traps and drop traps and empty traps and stack them.
We couldn’t talk over the sound of the engine, or when we did we yelled ourselves hoarse. In Alma Harbor I pointed to the trees that hid Grace and Mandy’s house and shouted, “I lived there,” and Drill shouted, “Only summer people live there.” It felt like trespassing, checking traps in their harbor, but I was unrecognizable in Drill’s gear.
I remember a lobster with no claws, wriggling like a snake beneath the others in the trap. Drill called it a pistol, said it shot its arms off to get free or because it got scared. We passed it back and forth. I spooked when I held it, flung it overboard.
A lobsterman drowned, and for his funeral we joined a chain of boats that circled and circled, our bow crashing up and down against the wake. Lined up to race, the Theresa was small against the others. Drill pushed her to the highest gear, the engine clunking and huffing blue exhaust. It was so strange to be still again. I staggered up the dock ramp and puked. Drill said, “Little wimp,” and we got in his truck and he pulled my head down into his lap and patted my hair until the feeling passed, his hand rough and noisy and warm against my ear.
One day out deep the engine quit. We drifted, and Drill refused to radio for help and burned his hand tinkering with the motor. Streaked with grease and swearing, he stripped his oil gear and jumped in. I jumped in too. He swam out too far for me to join him, and I waited for him in the water. It was a pure, cold pain that I couldn’t get used to, and when he swam back I wrapped my arms around his neck. “Doesn’t it feel like I don’t weigh a thing?” I said, and he said, “Feels like I’m holding nothing at all,” and we bobbed together, numb, breathing.
That was the difference between them, is Drill looked at me like he’d known me forever, and Dad looked at me like I was a stranger sneaking through the room.
Back then I didn’t think too much about the times Dad touched me, except in a magical way, in which I thought the reason why my body grew so curvy so early was because of his hands. Everyone could see, like he’d watered me and I was a plant that grew overnight. But I didn’t hate him.
The tree stump didn’t kill my dad right away, just tossed him through the windshield and left him bleeding inside. He crashed on the shortcut road out of Treelaw, and no one passed by for too long, and his lung collapsed. The hospital called me in the middle of the night. I put my hand on his chest. He had tubes in his nose and his lips were dry and he kept licking them. I held my hand over his heart. I didn’t hate him.
Winter was a tarped boat and the windows dark by three thirty. I let Drill’s home absorb me into its own private smells and darkness and comfort. I painted buoys and mended traps and knit pockets for bait out of twine like fixing the engine would be easy. Winter turned the skin at the nape of Drill’s neck pink and raw. He shaved his blond curls. “You be the pretty one,” he said. His scalp was covered in old scars that shined when the light hit them.
In our fridge was just clam bellies and the jug of skim milk for coffee brandy. I bought a bag of oatmeal heavy as a baby so I could make hot breakfast and found brown specks crawling in it and picked them out for one bowl’s worth, swallowing without looking at my spoon. I stayed in bed for days, fingering cigarette burns in the sheets, my muscles turning soft. My period skipped, and then it skipped again. Sometimes I lifted Drill’s pet snake from its cage and it coiled on his pillow like black rope. Instead of sleep I watched its slow blinking.
Our showerhead broke, and because of the water hitting the stall at the wrong angle paint chipped into the tub, and black mold bloomed across the tile. I went naked out into the living room and straddled Drill. Around us the house was a shit storm: the garbage bag we’d been using as a shower curtain since Drill yanked the old one down, and our yard just a rutted ice pit, and the fridge full of clam bellies, and in the freezer the frozen buckets of clam bellies, and the pigs eating the rotted ones, and the smell, musky and dark and low tide, that seemed to come from us. All of this was thick and terrible and Drill raking into me, the condom gone dry, I was sick. I was just sick.
When I called Grace it was like she’d never stopped liking me. She wouldn’t loan me money, but she hired me to clean house. She said that, with Mandy no longer living at home, she could use my company.
All of Grace’s glasses were in the sink, rinsed and neatly stacked but dirty. She’d been drinking Ensure, she told me, because with just one person around there was no reason to cook, but she always made a point to pour it into a glass. This made it like a meal. Cleaning her house was like cleaning any other—the drain hair, the yellow stain ringing her toilet bowl, black dust topping the books on her bookshelf. The elephant and lion and bear figurines were stuck to the sill like no one had touched them since me. Grace’s mildewed diaries were filled with the meals she and Mandy ate, the trips they took, the weather. I scanned the pages for my name.
In the bathroom I locked the door and climbed into their tub with no water. When I lifted my shirt my stomach looked soft and small, but soon the baby would show for good and my body could tell everyone for me. I picked a paper towel tube out of the trash and tried to press one end to my stomach so I could sing through it to my baby. I felt like the baby had a brain, and could hear me all right, even if the tube didn’t reach. When I got out of the tub and looked in the mirror there was a red ring around my mouth.
Mandy’s room was the same, minus the lipstick and glitter on the mirror and the cutout pictures that had been all over the walls. You could still see the outlines of our glow-in-the-dark solar system, and I scrubbed the glue gone. I crushed the stuffed animals she’d left behind into boxes and lay down on the floor.
When I woke up, at first I thought I was home. It was dark and I was covered with a blanket. There was one glow star left up by mistake, and I ripped it off and put it in my pocket and snuck downstairs.
“It’s late,” Grace said, startled awake from her sleep in front of the television. “Why don’t you stay the night in Mandy’s room?”
“I’m sorry I slept through my time,” I said. “I’ve got to get home.”
She emptied her wallet. “A little extra,” she said, “to tide you over.” She was leaving the next day for a week visiting Mandy. “You’re sure you won’t stay?” she said. “Final offer. It’s nice hearing you move around up there.”
I said Drill was probably fit to kill me as it was, and she gave me a look like I was running away all over again, like I didn’t have a home of my own that was worth making mention of.
Drill was sleeping when I climbed into bed, but his body greeted me, pressed up close, got hard. When I had him awake I pulled his cold hands to my belly and described each room in Grace’s house. I drew a blueprint on the back of my hand. In the morning ink was stamped like bruises on my cheek, on my thigh, on my neck.
We drove into Alma. I knew the roads. I dream about those roads.
Drill looked like a little boy, scabbed knuckles gripping the big wheel. We sped through the dark past the outlines of houses, all of those summer mansions, each one empty.
I knew my baby had eyes on the front of its face by now, and fingers with fingernails, and ears, and could suck its thumb even, and there was a layer of hair over its body to keep it warm, or I’m not sure why, and when it moved inside me, which it hadn’t done yet, it would feel something like butterflies.
The door was unlocked like I knew it would be. Inside, the house was cool and quiet and blue with moonlight. There was a bottle of Diazepam on Grace’s bedside table, and I considered taking all the pills in the bottle and lying down under the cool white sheets of her neatly made bed. I could hear Drill throwing open drawers, and I opened the top drawer of Grace’s dresser, took out her sweater, and pulled it on. It smelled like the color white. I imagined my baby would smell that way.
I tracked the sound of Drill’s hands as they moved through the house, unlatching the little brass boxes on top of the mantel, the dining room cabinets, the Chinese trunk. I came out of her bedroom and watched him pull the silver forks from her dish rack.
“We don’t need to take all that,” I said.
“I’m only taking what a burglar would take,” said Drill. He carried her laptop and her stereo to the car. He unplugged her glass lamp.
“Leave it,” I said. “She loves that.”
“I’ll build that baby the fanciest nursery you’ve ever seen,” he said. “Two of them.” He dumped wilted lilies onto the floor and took the vase. “You going to help, or have you changed your mind?” His voice whined. I took Grace and Mandy’s photographs out of their gold frames.
The animal figurines were heavier than I remembered. I wrapped them up in one of Grace’s scarves and held my hand over my mouth. I was cold with sweat. I didn’t take them all. Drill came over and put his arms around me.
He wore Grace’s big wool coat, and his fingers wiggled inside the pocket and pulled out a silver pocket watch. He grinned, the tops of his teeth white with plaque, and I could see his gums where molars were missing from drinking Coke not milk in his baby bottle, and the scars shimmered on his head. He held me, and his mouth felt like a gouge.
I told him to go start the engine. There was one room in the house I had forgotten, and I opened the closet door and squeezed through the coats to the secret storage space beneath the stairs, where it was so dark I couldn’t see my own hands. I crawled over trash bags of bedding. The stale air was over-sweet, like my hair when I don’t wash it. Like my pillows.
I didn’t feel the baby kicking, not a thing, and I didn’t sense it inside me either. When I found the far wall I leaned against it, breathing, thinking about the bath and Grace washing my hair. How good it felt to have my hair washed. How nice it was, to go to bed warm like that.
I waited for Grace to call. To have me come clean the mess, even, or to accuse me. I waited for someone to track us down, while we drove the long, dark stretches of highway, visiting pawnshop after pawnshop. Alone in my bedroom, lit by her glass lamp, I waited for the police at the door, but mostly I waited for her. My belly grew, and Kimmy was born, and Kimmy learned to walk, and I was still waiting on something.
No matter what. I left Drill to steer the boat today, carried Kimmy to the bow. I didn’t want to tell him I’d seen Mandy. I just wanted to watch the bow cut through the water. The boat is where she naps best, all that white noise and rumbling and wind. When she stirred in my arms, mouth breathing and whimpering, I dug the gold elephant out of my bag, which on most days is her favorite, and tucked it into her fist. Her cheeks were red, almost feverish. I’d have to check when we got home.
Anna Noyes’s fiction has appeared in Guernica, FiveChapters, and Vice. She has served as writer-in-residence at the James Merrill House and the Polli Talu Arts Center in Estonia.
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