Five Fictions by Matthew Beach

There She Is

A woman in a pantsuit arrives first. She opens the lockbox and takes the key. She steps into the living room. The air washes over her, a wave of vinegar, astringent and thick. She draws back, brings her fingers to her nose, then crunches in heels over tattered carpet, calcified from encrusted piss.

She toes open a knobless door. Hundreds of faded stickers pock magenta walls like disease—Elmos and Big Birds, Nemos and Barbies, My Little Ponies and Hello Kitties, all worn white and picked off at the edges like scabs.

The hardwood in the parents’ room is discolored where their bed had been. The floral print hangs from the walls in strips, bending back in synchrony like ribbon dancers, frozen mid-spin, the music cut too soon. The woman smiles at their elegance then shudders at the stillness they keep.

In the basement, the floor is a marsh. The hem of the woman’s trousers trails across a puddle. She sidesteps but is too late. In the middle of the room, a chain hangs from the ceiling. She pulls it for light, but there is no bulb. She strains for the perimeter. A fungus has bloomed and is starting up the walls. Her eyes water. She wants to touch them but refrains.

She finds a small window on the far wall and draws open the valence. A dim shred of twilight illuminates a picture frame propped up against the sill. She takes it then blows a dense layer of dust from the glass. She sees the father and the mother and the daughter huddled together in ponchos. The torrents of Niagara glistening around them, they are enveloped in light and water and happiness.

The woman tucks the picture into her blazer then cranks open the window. The windows of the house next door are empty, opaque. The house next to that one has no windows at all.

Another family is on its way, and there she is.

 

The Sofa

Marie is in her parents’ living room, quietly sitting on her knees behind their toile-patterned sofa. She is studying the vignette of happy Indian children playing chase around a banyan tree, their arms as wide as their smiles.

Marie’s mother, home late, is standing at the doorway, watching Marie’s piggy tails poke out like bunny ears from behind the couch cushion. Marie’s father, who had been drinking, is standing behind Marie—his left hand around the nape of her neck and his right around a kitchen knife.

Marie hears her mother scream something from the doorway. Her father screams something back then plunges the knife into the top of the cushion. He plunges it over and over—the tear and thud of his fist, the rake and pull of the knife, like boots from mud, militant and deliberate—toward Marie’s head.

Marie hears someone yelling her name. She hears sobbing beneath the screaming—voices breaking and choking, the crescendo and fall, the fermata, the breath. She hears her name again and again, punctuated by the knife, but she refuses to listen. She won’t let anyone disturb her daydream: she is standing under a banyan tree on the banks of the Arabian Sea, stretching her arms as wide as her smile, because she is having a very nice time and it is her turn to be it.

 

Something Like Misery

Still in last night’s heels, she wakes in a pool of sweat—her A-line clinging to her back like cellophane. Her only lasting memory of the night is of the hardened round faces at the bar, turning with ersatz interest and speaking something like misery.

Silk taffeta drapes hang softly under the elegant cornices of the room and do nothing to block out the sun. She squints into the bureau mirror. Her skin is pallid and clammy with a half-dried sheen of other people’s spit and sweat. Her hair, mousy and tousled into knots, and her eyelids—the color of cinnamon and varicose—are matted together in a glop of mascara. She removes her earrings and places them one at a time into the jewelry box. She takes her wedding band from the drawer and fingers it, deadpan and careful. After a time, she pushes it past her knuckle then opens the bedroom door.

Grabbing a hamper of dirty laundry from the hallway, she starts downstairs, picking up stray socks, a discarded shirt, and other castaways she finds there. She stops at the landing, tucks them carefully into the hamper, and looks about the house. A light is on in the kitchen. Toys and books litter the carpet. A bowl of Fruit Loops sits half-eaten on the coffee table. Two children—a boy and a girl—watch cartoons while a baby fusses from another room. She breathes deeply.

Yes, she thinks, the kids will be all right.

 

Giving Up the Ghost

Dad handed me the roadmap like it was some sort of ritual, some rite of passage. It was 1989 then, and he was playing a cappella gospel on cassette. The rain had picked up, so he dialed up the volume and switched on the wipers. They screeched on the upswipe and left an arc of smudged rain on the windshield. The world refracted and diffused in that arc, and I was holding the map.

I opened it in halves—first lengthwise, then widthwise, smoothing the creases with each unfurling leaf. I spread it out on my lap and studied like a cardiologist its red and blue reticula of expressways and avenues. I traced the veins with my fingertips as if checking for a pulse then snapped the map upright, inches from my nose, the way I’d seen my dad with the morning paper. I heard tires squeal, and our bodies thrust forward then back.

The truck thumped. Twice. Something sounding like bone struck our metal floorpan, and the four-part harmonies jarred in my head like the solemn knell of a church bell: And I’m so happy, so very happy. I got the love of Jesus in my heart, and I’m so happy, so very—

“Goddamned stupid beast,” dad said, cutting the volume. Dad didn’t stop. He didn’t slow. I imagined something like a groundhog clawing asphalt—its belly split open, wet organs pinning him helplessly to the road, a cloud of dust refusing to settle.

I returned my eyes and fingers to the map, tracing the roads back to Canton and praying for a heartbeat. It gave up the ghost, I thought, as I placed the folded map back in the glove compartment. I looked up and noticed the streak on the windshield the wipers always missed. I wished I never had taken the map, never had unfolded it. But I stared through the arc, eyes fixed—the world’s color and light slipping a little further out of focus.

 

A Good Mother

I had a late September birthday, and I should tell you as much because had I an earlier birthday, I’d have been getting ready for the school day with my brother and sister, but I wasn’t. I was sitting at the kitchen table drawing stick people with fat crayons. My mother—a good mother—was there, too, standing in her usual posture: bent over the stovetop, hips at an angle, one arm akimbo, and the other scrambling eggs with a fork. Wearing the apron she always wore, my mother was a permanent fixture among the porcelain pigs on the window sill, the rooster-shaped pepper shaker on the countertop, the polished spoons in the silverware box, and the floral dish set in the China cabinet: all the appurtenances of an Ohio housewife in 1996, all of them in their proper places.

“Mama.” I say to her.

She doesn’t hear me. She is looking absently out the kitchen window, her face glazed over.

“Mama.” I say again.

She murmurs something to herself, her voice low but direct.

“Mom!” I say, shaking my paper at her. “How’s this?”

She recoils in a gasp then jolts a look over her shoulder. “Pretty,” she says, shifting her focus to the eggs. “It’s great, hon. Really,” she says after a beat, trying to sound reassuring.

“Don’t lie, mom,” my sister says from across the table. “It doesn’t even look like anything.”

“Marie, eat your eggs,” mom retorts. “And be nice to Joanie.” Mom had a distinctive way of handling Marie. It wasn’t in what she said, but in the unmistakable sobriety that washed over her as she said it. “Where’s Dillon? He’ll miss the bus,” she says as she places the frying pan in the sink and draws water.

“Probably taking one of his extra-long showers again,” Marie says, a wry grin crawling across her face.

Marie always spoke in mordant riddles I was never quite old enough to understand.

“Enough, Marie! That is absolutely enough!” mom says.

Marie walks to the sink and sets her empty juice glass on the countertop. “Here’s another dirty one for you,” she says, sneering at mom through her bangs. I can barely see Marie’s teeth behind her taut lips.

Mom takes the glass. “I’m going to let your father deal with you tonight,” she says.

Marie rolls her eyes. “Really? ‘Cause I bet he’s got better things to do tonight. Huh, mom?”

“What’s dad got to do tonight?” I ask.

“Not what, Jo Jo,” Marie snorts. “Who!

 

“Marie, goddammit, go get your brother,” mom says through her teeth.

I’d never heard mom say that word before.

“Wow, mom,” Marie grunts, spinning on her heel. “Aren’t you a saint.”

Mom turns off the faucet with a sigh then dries her hands on her apron. “Joanie, sweetie,” she says, leaning over the table, “I’m going for a little trip today, ok? How would you like to spend the day with Auntie Kathy?”

I’m sure I liked the idea.

“All right then, Jo, why don’t you go to your room now and pack your duffle. And don’t forget your Snuffle Bear, ok?”

I nod.

The school bus screeches to a stop outside our house. Mom cups a hand to the corner of her mouth. “Marie! Dillon! Bus! Now!”

The two of them barrel past me on the stairs. I run to my bedroom. The window rattles from the souffle of the idling bus. I feel the vibrations with my palms and watch Marie and Dillon and the other kids step on board and toe the aisle to their seats.

If only I’d been born a week sooner, I’d have boarded that bus, too. I’d have found my place. I can still picture it as it motored off—the cloud of exhaust hanging where it just had been. As if by a poof of magic, it had disappeared and had taken my childhood with it.

 

When I returned to the kitchen, mom was gone, and I was alone. Her apron had been tossed to the floor. I picked it up and folded it and draped it gently over the oven handle. Nothing would be the same.

I went to the front porch to wait for Aunt Kathy. I sat there on the steps with the duffle in my lap. It always bothered me, I thought, the way mom dried her hands on that apron: those meticulous little spasms, her knuckles swelling and collapsing like a heart overworked, a lung choked out. I imagined her tossing it aside like a dirty rag: slow, deliberate, finished.

 

 

***

Matthew Beach is a high school English teacher, writer, and visual artist from Canton, Ohio. His poems and stories appear at Prose-Poem Project, Metazen, Weave, and elsewhere.

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