“Picking,” a collaborative short story by Kim Magowan & Michelle Ross from Vol. 9

I’m picking lemons from the lemon tree beside the back porch of a man I met a week ago at a fundraiser for the local cat shelter. Cocktails and Cats. I was mostly there for the cocktails, Josh was mostly there for his ex-wife, Maggie. She’s one of the shelter’s directors. “She’s my best friend,” he said at the bar, and I nodded as though this were perfectly normal.

How about you come over and help me make a lemon cream pie, he texted when I said yes to getting together.

I wondered if lemon cream pie was a euphemism. I texted, I don’t like lemony desserts. He texted, but you haven’t tried my lemon cream pie, not exactly settling the euphemism question.

This is my first date since my divorce, which was amicable, but I wouldn’t call Danny my friend. He’s more like a security blanket—tattered, threadbare, embarrassing really, yet hard to give up. I’m on a mission to stop missing Danny, and I hope Josh, a confident man who sends decisive texts conveying concrete plans, can help me do that. Because now here I am picking lemons and inside the house, there’s a pie pan and flour on the kitchen counter. (Turns out lemon cream pie means lemon cream pie.) Making homemade lemon cream pie is about as un-Danny as it gets. My ex couldn’t even manage simple nachos. Always by the time he pulled them out of the oven, the chips were scorched.

This lemon tree is pressed against a chain-link fence dividing Josh’s back yard from his neighbor’s back yard. Two limbs fringed with yellow teardrops reach out over that fence like the come-hither gesture of a noir femme fatale. The people in that yard, a tatted up woman in an orange one-piece swimsuit and three fully clothed women and an assortment of toddlers, pay the lemons no mind. The woman in the swimsuit minds everything else, though. She’s a frantic bundle of energy careening around the overgrown yard. She reaches into the tall grass and plucks out a human child, places him onto a wheat-colored blanket where he is more easily visible. She inspects a stubby row of three tomato plants shaded by a small child’s plastic slide. She picks up an unattached garden hose, moves it to the other side of the plastic kiddie pool that none of the children are using, for which none of the children are even dressed. The water in that pool is a strange milky hue, like glue.

“I call that the mosquito nursery,” Josh whispers.

One of the toddlers puts a fistful of dirt into her mouth. The three clothed women sit quietly in fold-out chairs, as motionless as mannequins. I envision a photo shoot: The gritty suburban. Maybe the shoot would be for an article about race in America. The sitting women are white; all three plump. The busy, swim-suited woman is Asian American. I’m pretty certain the only flesh on her body that’s pinchable is her small breasts.     

In the house, this strange backyard scene is visible again from Josh’s kitchen window, and now that we can talk at ease I say, “Is that a play date?”

Josh shrugs. “There are parents and toddlers streaming in and out of that yard all day, every day.”

“But they all look so uncomfortable.”

Josh hands me a grater and a lemon and tells me to grate.

It’s one of those graters that looks like a metal spatula. From the concave side, the holes are perfectly round, but from the convex side, the side for grating, they are 3-dimensional teardrops.

When I was in the last stages of my marriage, something strange happened to my vision: it became extremely sharp. I would look at random appliances, things I saw and handled regularly, and see all these new-to-me details, such as those contoured teardrops on the grater. It was like I was viewing objects through a times-ten microscope. My friend Elodie was pregnant at the time, and obsessed with her suddenly acute sense of smell. We’d speculate about the evolutionary purpose, this ability to smell dog pee on the sidewalk from twenty feet away. What poisons were pregnant women protecting their fetuses from? I finally told her about my super-vision—I’m not sure why I was keeping it a secret, but I hadn’t told anyone, even Danny. Frankly, it scared the crap out of me. I was afraid I had one of those brain tumors that turned people into geniuses or clairvoyants. Elodie, sounding like the psychotherapist I used to see in graduate school, said, “Why at this particular moment in your life do you think you need to see everything really clearly?”

The super-vision dominoed into a cleaning frenzy, but not a particularly satisfying cleaning frenzy in which one moves toward a final domino that will smack the floor, signaling the end. When you can see as well as I could then, you’re never satisfied, you never relax. Everything is grimy. Watching the swimsuited woman go, go, go around that overgrown yard, I wonder if she suffers a similar extrasensory glitch.

“Is she always in motion like this?” I say.

Josh says, “She drives Maggie insane too. The Mosquito Nanny Maggie calls her.” 

My hands stop grating. Insane? Maggie?

“I only asked a question. You think I’ve being driven insane?”  

“Sorry,” Josh says. “Maggie—” Then he says, “I should really stop talking about Maggie. She warned me about this. She’s—” He holds up his hands, which are covered in sticky globs of buttered flour.

Back in the bar, when Josh said his ex-wife was the director of the cat shelter, I’d looked around, trying to decide who was Maggie. I thought she might be this languid woman with straight black eyebrows who looked like a sorceress. But then Josh pointed her out. Sawdust-colored hair that were it a paint swatch, would be named “Nondescript.” A turquoise felt ball dangled from each of her ears. They looked like tiny cat toys, and the way they swung about when she turned her head, I imagined tiny cats perched on her shoulders, batting at her earlobes. I narrowed my eyes, wishing I still had my super-vision so I could see what was secretly captivating about her.

What’s really whacked is that the real reason I went to that cat shelter fundraiser was I’d been hoping to run into Danny. Every Christmas, he writes a $50 check to that shelter. Danny adores cats, but he’s allergic to them. His eyes turn red within minutes of sharing air with a feline. He jokes sometimes that being allergic to cats is the great tragedy of his life. I used to think this was funny, but after a while, I thought, no dude, the great tragedy of your life is that you’ve never got any new material. Danny is like paper that has been recycled too many times, its fibers too short and weak to hold together anymore.

But there I was, hoping to see him anyway. What badly constructed object did that make me?

I ask, “Why does she, Maggie that is, call your neighbor ‘The Mosquito Nanny’?”

Josh looks a little startled, then wipes off his buttery hands. “That wading pool, they leave standing water in it. We were always concerned it was a hazard.”

I register “We.” Maggie’s still all over him, a filmy residue.

Josh says, “Also, Merguez—she’s the woman in the swimsuit—”

“‘Merguez’ like the sausage?”

Josh nods. “Hey, have you ever been to that Tunisian place on McAllister with the amazing merguez?” When I shake my head, he says, “Anyway, Merguez the woman, not the sausage, has a tattoo of a mosquito.” With his elbow, he turns on the faucet to rinse his hands. He dries them, then daintily taps his chest, his fingers still greasy looking. “Right above her nipple.”

“And the answer to the natural follow-up question?” I say.

Josh grins. Points to a window in the house opposite, where a small, red four-legged figurine sits. Is it a horse? A dog maybe? A year ago, with my super-vision, I would have been able to see its eyeballs; now I can’t even identify what kind of creature it is.

“Merguez’s bathroom,” he says. “She never pulls down that blind.”

“Still, I don’t see how you could see from this far. Is the mosquito the size of a fist? Mosquito on steroids?”

Josh pulls open a drawer. Between a stack of tea towels and a box of plastic wrap are binoculars. “Don’t look at me. I swear I’ve never used them, not even when Maggie told me I had to see that mosquito.”

 “Wait,” I say, “Does Maggie still live here?”

I never was any good at dating, so it figures the first guy I meet after Danny would be in some weird purgatory with his ex. I look around the kitchen for more evidence of her.

“What?! Of course not. Actually, I do know a guy who lived with his ex-wife for six whole months after they divorced. Because that’s how long they had left on their lease, and they could barely pay that lease on two incomes as it was, so a second lease wasn’t an option. It was a one-bedroom too and neither wanted to sleep on the couch for six months, so one week the bedroom was hers, the next week it was his.”

I’m about to comment on how perverse this arrangement is, when I think, wait, why do I care about two random strangers? Everything with Josh is a deflection. So I ask the question I’ve been avoiding all week. “Why did you guys split up?”

He grimaces. “Why did you and what’s-his-name get a divorce?” That’s how little I’ve talked about Danny, compared to Josh going on and on about Maggie: he doesn’t even know Danny’s name.

Or do I mean how little Josh has actually listened to me?

I scrape the wet lemon rind from the grater. Josh watches me for a minute, then says, “Maggie is really honest. Like, pathologically honest. I used to wonder if she was on the spectrum. She has no awareness of social niceties. You know, someone will ask, ‘Do I look OK?’ and she’ll say, ‘Good thing OK is all you’re going for.’”

“Someone meaning ‘you’?” I say.

People generally choose partners at their aesthetic level, or if there is an imbalance, it’s the woman who is more attractive. I read some article purporting to list the 13 characteristics of happy couples, and one of the characteristics was that in heterosexual pairings, the woman should be more attractive than the man. Apparently, both the man and woman are happier when she’s the more beautiful of the two: he thinks he scored, and she feels desirable. But Josh is way better looking than Maggie. Whenever I meet a mismatched couple, I carefully study the uglier person, especially when the uglier person is female, to figure out what they bring to the table. It seems bizarre that Josh would need reassurance, or that Maggie could respond to such a question with anything other than a grateful, “yes.”

“Actually I was thinking of her friend Colette, who was so, so insecure. Colette would regularly leave our house in tears. ‘I’m just being honest,’ Maggie’d say. She didn’t get it at all. Believe me, it’s not easy to live with someone who feels like she needs to comment on one’s every—” he grimaces—“performance. She had no filter. If she’d kept her thoughts to herself, different story.”

Different story, as in Maggie would be the one wrestling with this grater?

I scratch more lemon goop into the bowl, considering. Unlike Maggie, I did keep thoughts to myself. One such thought occurred when Danny and I were at a restaurant, and I ordered a bowl of potato-leek soup. The soup wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t good either. I tabulated its qualities (warm, not hot; bland, not flavorful; a little mealy), and then I had a thought: Danny is like this bowl of soup. The thought was so awful, and so boomingly loud in my brain, I pictured it exploding like a huge, pink gum bubble all over our table. But of course my revelation wasn’t audible, though it expanded and kept expanding in my head for the next few weeks, until it was the bass hum to every other thought, and I’d think it while watching Danny peel off his smelly (but not truly odiferous) socks with my unbearably sharp eyes.

Since our divorce, however, I wonder if that acute vision hadn’t been quite what it seemed. Not a brain tumor, but also not keen insight. I knew this guy in college who had a photographic memory. Pete was a B/C student, but not because he was lazy. The way he explained it: the mind can only store so much data, so when his brain memorized useless information such as the pattern of a random stranger’s freckles or the buttons on their blouse, that meant there was less storage space for the stuff that was useful. Maybe scrutinizing Danny up close had been akin to gorging on the wrong information. Maybe that’s why I’d had that revelation about Danny as a bowl of soup: my subconscious was trying to tell me I’d hit saturation point.

Who doesn’t look a little ugly if you zoom in too close? I think of the magnifying mirror in Danny’s mother’s bathroom. I’d go in there thinking I looked good, but if I glanced in that mirror while I washed my hands, all I saw were pores like craters.

Josh puts his hand on my shoulder, and says, “Watch.” I look up and see Merguez has just entered her bathroom.

Maybe Danny’s best qualities are visible only at a distance. Like the tattoo above Merguez’s nipple. I watch her in her bathroom as she pulls down her orange swimsuit, exposing her nipples and that tattoo. From where I am, I don’t see a blood-sucking, stick-legged mosquito. I see a beautiful, feathery fishing lure. I see the flume between Merguez’s nose and upper lip, her architectural collarbone, and her eyes, catching mine, widening in what appears to be recognition.

Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teaches in the Department of Literatures and Languages at Mills College. Her short story collection Undoing (2018) won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award. Her novel The Light Source was published by 7.13 Books in 2019. She is Fiction Editor of Pithead Chapel: kimmagowan.com.

Michelle Ross is the author of There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You (2017), which won the 2016 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award. She is Fiction Editor of Atticus Review. She lives in Tucson, Arizona: michellenross.com.

Image: hotelzodiacobolsena.site

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