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Blue Like Babe
By Alissa Nielsen

 

Cody tells me to wait in the closet. The boys from two blocks down are on the front steps and they can't know I'm here and that's just the way things are, ever since Cody turned double-digits last September.

“It'll only be for a little while,” he says.

I sit on a box of Coors Light cans. “Fine,” I say. But it's not fine, not really.

Before the interruption, Cody and I were playing tag in the basement —he chased me over gremlin green carpets, saltwater taffy stuck in shag, as I dodged beanbags and bar stools, one fluorescent light flickering, and when his hand brushed my shoulder, I shrieked just like a barn owl, Cody with both hands over his ears, giggling and gasping, Cody's dad screaming Quiet down! and I did because I was any-kid-under-his-roof.

I watch him, Cody's dad, through a sliver of light between shutter doors. He's hunched over a newspaper at the kitchen table, circling stuff with a Sharpie. Little rogue hairs sprout out from his arms, a tattoo on his shoulder—Babe the Blue Ox, fading into speckles of gray.

My mom, Britt, who prefers I call her by her first name, recently got a tattoo of the ancient phoenix, bright red, stretched across her lower back, just above her bottom. Now she wears jeans at the hip, giving a flash of fiery wing with each step. If she's home, I'd be surprised. Probably out with the girls, lounging at Knute's Bar and Grill way past happy hour. Britt likes to say, It's just a phase, and that's what I keep thinking about Cody and his friends—soon this will blow over. I pull Cody's jacket down from a hanger, wrap it around me, breathe in the scent of macaroni and chapstick.

“Hi, my name's Paul,” Cody's dad says into the phone, wire uncurling from the wall to the table. “I saw your ad.” His jaw clenches.“Well, let's see, I'm a single parent of two boys. Cody, he's ten and Kevin's six. I like to fish over there at Lake Melissa on weekends and, well, I'm just looking for someone who's easy.” He stutters, “Well, no, hey, not easy, like that, but y'know, someone who's easy to be around is what I'm saying.” He shakes his head, pushes the button to delete, starts over. “Hi, my name's Paul. I'm a single father . . .” Then he goes silent, rolls the phone to his forehead, takes a long breath, flannel shirt tightening at his chest, and finally stands, hangs up.

Last summer, Cody's mom, Starla, moved to Sunnyside apartments, south of 82 nd, and this past winter, we got a Christmas card just from her. The movie Dick Tracy had come out, the one with Madonna, and the card was in that style—Cody's mom in a negligee, done up like Breathless Mahoney, Cody and Kevin in black suits holding plastic machine guns. On the edge it said, “Merry Christmas and God Bless.” Jesus! Britt snorted. What was that woman thinking? Now that's one for the fridge. But I couldn't stop staring at Cody, the suit arms dangling well past his fingertips.

I get used to the darkness, can see things now: fishing rods, rubber waders, winter coats and snow boots, a tangled pile of fancy women's shoes in the corner, stacked economy-sized bottles with words like POWER and GAIN and SUPER in lightning-bolt lettering. I twist one open, find pills that stink of burnt spinach and chalk, screw the lid on tight, but I can still taste the smell in the back of my throat. I pocket a handful of the tablets, might be able to trade them for something good, maybe those washers Cody's been stashing—they work like quarters in certain vending machines—free Snickers, Mars Bars, Peanut M&M's. One time Cody bought out all the Skittles in a machine. It was so weird. You hate those, I said. Why waste the washers? He sat cross-legged, put a red Skittle on the sidewalk, smashed it with his thumb, then shrugged. Because they're gross, he said. And I don't want nobody eating them. I stared at him, waiting for more. He'd get quiet like that, just shutting everything out. You should've taken Milk Duds, I said. He sparked a smile. Probably shoulda, he said, and then for no reason wrote my name, Vi, with a green Skittle, right there on the cement.

I hear stomping on linoleum, and press my face to the slats. Cody's dad leans on one palm at the sink, staring into the back yard, slurping the dregs from the lip of his Coors. He finishes and chucks the empty at the garbage. I watch it roll off a mound of milk cartons, Mountain Dew and blue boxes of Mac and Cheese, a KFC bucket of bones.

“Cody,” he yells. “I told you to empty the trash.” He waits to hear something back, then screams for Kevin but neither come. He grumbles and tears a Hefty bag from a reel, stuffs in the debris and cinches the plastic yellow tie. Something brown and syrupy leaks from the bottom, but he doesn't notice; it leaves an icky trail across the linoleum. The phone rings.“Can somebody get that?” he yells; the screen door smacks shut behind him. No one answers and soon the machine picks up.

“Hi, Paul,” her voice says. “I was wondering if Vi's over there. Just trying to keep tabs.” She annunciates each word, the way she does after too many Tequila Sunrises. “Anyway, I'm running late, but should be home by ten.” The women squeal in the background, the answering machine clicks off, and the red light blinks.

Cody's dad closes the door. “Shit,” he says, noticing the dirty streak. I watch him clean—he has mammoth shoulders, like men in bible movies. He squeezes the sponge, stuffs it in the mouth of a ceramic frog next to where Starla used to keep her calla lilies and collapses at the table, paws through the paper.

He's looking and I'm waiting. I wait at church, at Knute's, Macy's, the hair salon—I am silent, a speck of dust, a freckle, a pulse. We have this in common, Cody and I, we're both hiders in a world full of seekers—that's how I see it.

I hear a beep and the playing of Britt's message and scrunch back into the corner, covering myself with coats. He screams for Cody, “Is Vi down there?” There's clunking on the stairs and then Cody's voice, quiet, but I can still make it out.

“Not down there,” Cody says.

“Her mom just called, have you seen her?”

“Yeah—”

“Then where is she?” His dad's voice is pressing, and I flash to the time Cody showed me his shoulder —purpled in a halo of yellow. His dad had thrown him into the brick wall by the fire place. Something in his dad's voice makes me go cold now, really chilled, like that time.

“Don't know,” Cody says.

“She was here earlier.”

“Yeah, but she's not . . . I mean, I haven't seen her.” And I bet he's sweating under his nose, he does that sometimes.

“You better tell me where she is,” his dad says, and I wonder if he has Cody by the collar, I wonder if he's really going to hurt him this time.

I saw Cody get punched in the face at school once. Sun blazing, two boys called him away from the jungle gym, over to the balancing beams near the fence.

Wait here, he told me.

You don't have to, I said, feet burning on the smooth, wooden platform.

His gaze trailed down the length of my hair, his worried look went soft. Ladybug, he said, pulling a dot of orange from my strand, throwing the insect up into the sky. It plummeted through the air, falling, until—shiny black wings.

I squatted inside the domed window of a jungle gym submarine watching Cody's Converse go dusty in sand. At first, they were just talking . . . but then one boy threw a fist into Cody's stomach, the other kicked his shins, and Cody fell backwards into dirt and dandelions, didn't even try to fight back. They hovered around his face —I turned, stared helpless into bark, a blur of box elder bugs swarming.

Cody stumbled over to me, shorts torn, covered in dirt, a dew drop of bloody red in the white of his eye. Let's go, he said, and grabbed me by the arm. But you're cut, I said. Your lip. He wiped his chin with a sleeve, I said let's go. And I didn't mind that his fingers dug into my skin.

Now the closet doors fly open, light flecks burst through the threads of the coat. I hold my breath, a fast thumping in the back of my ears.

“Vi, get out of there,” Cody’s dad says, an arm reaching in, pulling me by a sleeve.

I stumble into the cold kitchen.

He grabs his son by the bicep. “What was she doing in the closet?”

Cody stares with the numb gaze of a frog.

His dad shakes him, as if to startle him awake. “Answer me,” he says, jaw stiffening. I'm so close, I see stubble—black hairs, the size of a tick's leg. It feels wrong to be this close.

Cody shrugs. He won't answer. I can't take my eyes off their lips, Cody's full and glistening, his dad's plump and dry, breathing in unison.

There's a creaking and we all look toward the basement; the boys from two blocks down duck back. His dad lunges over and opens the door. “Out!” he yells, and the boys scuttle down the hallway, exiting through the garage.

Cody's dad shakes his head. “She's been in the closet all this time? While you've been downstairs with your buddies?” He makes a gesture with his hand, a sort of whimsy-flutter Starla always made, except his is forced and ungainly.

Cody's gaze drifts to me—its eerie emptiness leaves me clammy.

“You made her wait?” His dad says. “In that closet? While you're out having fun?” Cody stays silent—it's not good, makes him seem like a smartass.

“Jesus,” his dad says. “You don't treat your friends like that.” Cody's dad tilts his head, narrowing his eyes. “Say you're sorry to Vi,” he says. But Cody's sullen, stiff, not even blinking, belly-up, floating in a pond somewhere.

“Say you're sorry!” Cody's dad squeezes a pink arm blue, flings him, dangling and sprawled, in front of me, and there's Cody gaze, drifting away.

“Say you're sorry to her, goddamn it!”

My stomach swarms: box elders, red and black squirming over one another in droves, and I bust open. Wide. Lunge forward in a whir of fists.

There's a faint, “Vi, what the—?” but words are hard to make out, everything's sharp, high frequency, a whistle only an animal could hear.

Cody's dad grips my shoulders, squats, face to face, and I want to spit at him, and he knows, lifts his chin, as if to say: go on girl, I deserve it.

“Don't you hurt him,” I whisper through teeth.

“Vi—” he says, just skimming the edge of fury and tears.

“Stop it!” Cody screams. He's climbed onto a chair. “God—I hate you, I hate both of you!” he yells at his dad, then glares down at me —it's all Starla, his look.

“Cody,” his dad stammers, “what the hell's wrong with you?”

Cody jumps from the chair and runs to his room.

His dad gapes. “Well that's new,” he says to the air, to some mythical person, not me.

I back against the wall and hear myself say, “I think he's done with me.”

His dad pats my shoulder. “He doesn't mean it, Vi,” he says. “Sometimes we just forget ourselves.” Then he winces a little, focuses. “We all go through . . .” and he pauses but I know what he's going to say, I've heard it a billion times from Britt. “Phases, y'know, but sooner or later we come around.”

“Not everyone,” I snap.

He lets his hand fall from my arm, shakes his head. “No. You're right. Not everyone.” He leans beside me and releases one of those long, loud sighs.

I wipe my eyelashes with a sleeve. “I want to go home,” I say, but I don't, not really, I just want to go back, backwards in time.

“I know, sweetheart,” he says.

We both stand there for a long while watching the light glow from the kitchen, coats dangling inside an open closet, as if, at any moment, we might just get up and leave.

 

 

 

 

 

Alissa Nielsen is a short-fiction writer, editor and teacher. Her work has appeared in The Raven Chronicles, Ellipsis, and Slightly West. She studied literature and writing at Charles University in Prague, The Evergreen State College, and earned her MFA from Pacific University. Currently, she lives in Portland, Oregon, where she is working on a collection of short stories.

 

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