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Susan Tepper

 

String

 

They say keep Jesus close and you will be safe. I try doing this. Every day I look up at his cross, and I try to see into Jesus’ eyes, hoping they will give me some sign, something small just so I know he’s aware of me. But they’re always half shut. All I ever see when I look at him is his confusion.

*

The little blue house seemed big at first, I could spread my arms and feel the sea, each wall like a separate continent. Before Michael and me, a lady and her grown son lived in the house. Possibly forever. That’s how much filth, the filth of foreverness. Mice had gone through like rain into a roofless house. Black droppings everywhere, even in among the knives and forks and spoons belonging to the lady and her son.

The minute they collected our money for the house, they just picked up, left everything behind. Even their toothbrushes remained behind in the holder.

The next day I drove there and sat on the kitchen floor and started crying. No one to help me clean the house. Not Michael. He didn't want it in the first place. He said he’d give me one month of paying double rents, one month to get it in shape before we moved in.

“Allison you wanted it, you deal with it,” he said.

Every day that month, leaving the apartment early, I went to the house. I put on rubber gloves that reached my elbows and got on my knees and scraped out wads of mouse poop with a big serving spoon from the dining room hutch belonging to the mother and son. After days of that, I bought a stiff brush from the hardware store around the corner and scrubbed inside those kitchen cabinets. Crying the whole time. It was December by then.

If I’d known about Jesus then, I would’ve started to pray right there on that floor. I was cold in the house. I had to keep the windows open because of the mouse smell. The reddish wood floor so soft that when I dropped a butter knife it stuck there leaving an indent. The kitchen was narrow but long; drifting like a vine toward the back door.

Soon after we moved in the cesspool started to seep into the basement.

“Nothing to be done,” Michael said, “till the ground thaws.”

He hadn’t yet made up his mind whether to stay in the Army, make it his career. Because of his color blindness, or his flat feet — one or the other — he was pretty safe from being sent to combat. I never got all that straight but what was the difference? It wasn't me who might get shipped out. Though I wanted to so badly. Ship me anywhere, I thought.

It had struck me early; on our honeymoon; sitting next to Michael driving a rented car through towns with names like San Luis Obispo. A countryside where artichokes fluffed the hills.

Jesus, stay close, I pray now every chance I get.

On the honeymoon I didn’t pray but stared out the window while Michael drove us in almost total silence. The radio kept at a hum. You couldn’t tell which song, only that there was one and someone singing. I’d asked Michael could he make it louder. “I prefer it this way,” he said.

In our new, old house there was controversy over the bedroom. I wanted green. He insisted on gold. Gold for me would be suffocating, wheat-like, its tendrils clogging my breathing. Then one morning I would wake up dead. I prayed so hard: Please, Jesus, make it green.

It was my first direct answer. Sherwin-Williams store near our house didn’t have enough gold paint in stock, at least not the gold Michael wanted. On our way to a different paint store the car sputtered and died, had to be towed to a gas station. By that time Michael was furious, worrying about being late for the base and what his superior officer might do to retaliate.

“Get your green,” he told me, “but don't make it army green.”

Before he could change his mind I bought a soft wintergreen color. So the bedroom would smell like mints when I woke up.

*

People kill on account of the string. You only get so much. Right at the moment of birth it’s cut from your mother. Then you have to dole it out, slowly, carefully, over that period of time that is your life. If it comes off too fast you run out. Like fishing. There's just so much line.

*

Aqua for the living room and dining room that flowed together like a luscious swimming pool. Aqua, to stay afloat. By then it was spring. Cold, wet, gloomy. The windows of our house still bare. I set my portable sewing machine on the crappy dining table left behind by the mother and son. Its edges chipped like they’d been whittled with a knife.

Once the son came back looking for his clothes. I’m sorry, I told him, I gave them away to St. Vincent de Paul box near the bank, months ago. The clouds had just slid, making the sky a little bright. He didn’t seem surprised and went off down the driveway whistling.

Every room needed curtains. But curtains were expensive unless you settled for ugly ones. Marie, my neighbor from the apartments, had the ugliest curtains I’d ever seen. When she came that first visit to our house she urged me to buy from the same curtain outlet. What could I say?

As the weather turned warmer, Michael wanted more frequent sex. The people next door in the red house had killed a deer and left it hanging upside down in their garage to drain the blood. I had to look at that deer every time I drove or walked up our pebble driveway, which ran right next to their driveway. It was impossible not to.

On the other side, the other neighbor, a skinny divorced woman, lived with her fat-bellied boyfriend. She screamed incessantly at her kids in a high pitched voice they ignored. Every few months her sister drove up in a brown Rolls Royce. I wanted to get a look at the sister but she always managed to get out of the car and into the house before I got a glimpse. I did see the car, though; brown and humped as it was in front of the broken down cottage. I wondered what the rich sister thought of the fake flower arrangements in the windows.

I’d been collecting reeds, to fill baskets, from the wild overgrowth in our yard. In early spring Michael had dug a deep trench and put in piping. Now the waste escaped into the dirt like an irrigation system. I tried not to think about what was going on under there.

The neighbor with the fake flower arrangements suggested I grow tomato plants in the yard.

“The ground is too wobbly for tomatoes, back there,” I said.

The deer neighbor offered us deer meat. I took some then gave it away to the other neighbor’s fat-bellied boyfriend who was overjoyed, cooking it that same night on the barbecue.

A few weeks later my neighbor said she'd broken it off with him. “I can do better,” she said.

“Of course you can,” I said. But then I prayed to be forgiven of this lie. Jesus never lied. And look what happened. I stared at the sky a moment.

Michael wanted kinky sex. “I thought we already did that,” I said. He wanted things with devices.

Oh, I didn’t like the sound of it. What if it caused a permanent vibration? Then what? Jesus, help me, I prayed. Then I remembered the Virgin birth and wondered if this sort of thing was out of Jesus’ area of expertise?

Michael wanted me squeaky clean. He came home one night with a douche bag. When I wouldn’t use it, he steered me into the tub, pushing the nozzle inside me, pumping me full of water in the bathtub. I closed my eyes, felt myself lifting toward the ceiling.

“You’re a fool,” the neighbor with the deer meat told me the next day.

Our houses being so close together, I wondered if she’d looked through her window, had seen me floating near the ceiling and considered this an unsafe act. “It wasn’t for that long,” I said.

“My husband and sons killed that animal themselves,” she said. “They stalked it through the woods for hours. It's not like it came off some supermarket shelf, you know.”

“Oh, I know, it bled for a long time.”

“You gave away precious venison to that slob.”

I hopped from one foot to the other.

“Why are you doing that?” my neighbor said.

“I wanted to see what it feels like.”

“You’re extremely ungrateful.” And she turned away going into her red house.

I fingered the cross I wear all the time now. The little Jesus in the middle too small for me to feel his eyes.

Michael has decided we should go away on vacation. He wants a cabin on a lake.

“Don’t they have spiders?” My experience with mice has sickened me to all wildlife.

He says we can pack a can of Raid.

“I want to stay here, you go without me.” Bring Dina, I’m thinking. It would make me ecstatic for him to bring Dina. He talks of her continually: Dina this, Dina that.

“You have to come, you’re my wife.”

Oh, no, not that.

“I just thought maybe Dina and Mark could go. They like that lake stuff.”

“You’ve never met them. How do you know what they like?”

“Well you said. You said Mark once caught a bass in Canada, and that Dina cooked it in white wine.”

“Bullshit, Allison. They don’t drink wine. They’re in AA.”

I am sure I heard that. I remember thinking it sounded soggy, a fish cooked in wine.

“Do you suppose they skin them before they cook them in wine?”

“Allison, I told you, they don’t drink.”

My neighbor has removed all the flower arrangements from her windows in order to clean the glass with Windex. In certain windows I can see her scrubbing vigorously. By the next day they’re still missing.

“Where are your flowers?” I ask on garbage day.

“I got sick and tired of the whole kit and caboodle.”

“What about your kids?”

“They went to live with my sister in Vermont.”

“I meant about the flowers.”

“The kids never noticed. So you see it doesn’t matter.”

My other neighbor in the red house will no longer speak to me. She refuses to wave when I wave while driving up the driveway. Her husband and sons refuse to speak to me, also, turning their backs pretending to need something out of their garage.

Leftover deer meat, I’m thinking, picturing the extra freezer in their garage. They must be checking their extra deer meat supply, in case I slip in some night to steal some to give to the other neighbor’s boyfriend.

“They broke up!” I shout the next time I spot the husband outside. He still refuses to look over.

It’s hopeless, Jesus. And I finger his body on the cross.

Michael I convince to go to the lake without me. It doesn’t take that much persuading. My neighbor who gave up the boyfriend told me I am living dangerously. It never occurred to me that I knew how to.

“You should dye your hair a different color,” she says.

Which different color? She is non-committal saying it was just an idea; and that she’s been thinking of turning lesbian to spite the old boyfriend who has a new girlfriend.

“How will that spite him?”

“He’ll worry that I’ll steal her away.” And my neighbor brushes a piece of hair off my cheek. “I could practice on you,” she says.

Uh-oh. I feel my string reeling out faster than it should. She reaches for my cheek again.

“No,” I say.

“You only had to say no,” my neighbor says getting in a big huff.

You see, Jesus, you see what I mean.

“Well let me know if you ever want to have coffee,” she says.

“I have no problem with coffee.”

“I'll be in Vermont checking on my kids.”

Saturday morning Michael comes home smelling of something other than fish. “You smell different,” I say.

“It’s the fresh lake air.”

“Oh, I thought it smelled manufactured. Like from a factory.”

“Allison, have you been sleeping?”

“Not that well.”

“I thought so.” He throws his fishing tackle down the basement stairs.

“Is that a new fishing vest?”

“Not exactly.”

“I never noticed it before.”

“I bought it at the lake.”

“Then it is new!”

“Allison, you have to stop looking for things to worry about.”

“Did you catch any fish?”

“That, too,” he says.

I open a cabinet and take out a bowl. “I’m having Cornflakes,” I say pouring some in.

I can feel Jesus tightening around my throat when I swallow, as if his hand is on the gold chain, yanking it up like a noose. Please don’t do that, Jesus, I beg silently. But the chain is growing tighter and I started gagging. Why would you do this, Jesus? Please don’t hurt me!

I am begging and Jesus ignores me. My eyes starting to pop, I can feel the blood in them. Then I see that deer upside down and swinging from the rafters: all bulging eyes and frozen time.

The chain snaps. I hear Jesus hit the soft floor before actually seeing for myself.

“It only takes one bullet perfectly aimed,” I say to Michael but he’s already left the room.

 

 

Susan Tepper is the author of five published books. Her recent title The Merrill Diaries (Pure Slush Books, 2013) is a Novel in Stories. Tepper is a named finalist in story/South Million Writers Award 2013. She has been nominated nine times for the Pushcart, and once for a Pulitzer Prize in fiction. www.susantepper.com

 

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MadHat, Issue 15, Winter 2013-2014