HOLLIE THOUGHT OF THIS AS A CONTRACT. She and Dana had promised each other they’d be the type of people who remembered things could always be worse.
They toasted the tragic.
“To James Dean!”
“To Princess Di!”
Still, it was a bummer when their favorite restaurant didn’t have a wheelchair ramp.
“Well,” he said. “Let’s go somewhere with a ramp.”
“Let’s go somewhere expensive with a ramp,” she said.
She was proud of her husband, his tough mouth. If anyone stared at him, Dana glanced up and unholstered his thickest Philly accent: “You shoulda seen the other guy.”
It was like the old joke about the grimy Schulkyll River, Hollie told people: if you fall in, don’t bother getting out. The car that hit her husband’s amid the Schulkyll Expressway’s slick March traffic had plummeted into the water below. The ‘other guy’ never bothered getting out until the cops dragged the river, and him. Dana was still half here. Half full, they remembered to remind each other.
There were, after all, a lot of ‘other guys.’ They knew this for a fact since they had started skimming the obituaries for what kinds of things were killing people under forty these days. Accidents had held the number one spot for weeks. And not just car accidents, but tales of the strange – those things that should be so rare – such as a head hit against a freezer door. The out-of-the-blue tear jerker had aged, like mild cheese, into a single click of the tongue.
Just last week Dana had wheeled into the living room where Hollie lay tented under the unfolding hands of the Sunday paper.
“Jon Lennon is dead,” he announced.
She smirked. “Oh really?”
“My friend from when we were kids, Jon Lennon. His mom just called. He died.”
“You had a friend named John Lennon?”
“Yeah. J-O-N, Jonathan Lennon. We sat next to each other all through elementary school: Lennon, Lennox.”
Hollie stood up and walked over to rub his shoulder. (He hadn’t gotten too close; they were keeping his blackening wheels off this rug.) She liked to massage his shoulders. It made her thankful for arm muscles. With these he could still do his very favorite things, like cooking and giving bad drivers the finger. He wouldn’t be driving anymore, of course, but maybe someday he’d find himself in a swarm of less-nimble wheelchair riders, so he could flip them the bird. He’d need that. If worse came to worse, he could always flick off his dad; that was a back-up plan that could always be counted on.
“Ono, oh no!” she said to make him laugh.
In a rush, Hollie felt a strong urge to go to the bathroom. But she couldn’t just walk away from him like that, Dana unable to follow her to the toilet as he used to, continuing their conversation over the staccato tinkling. The corners of the narrow hallway would halt him again and again. (In the weeks when he was first adjusting to the chair, she’d have to wait for him to go to bed and then hunch along the hall with paint and paintbrush, touching up the walls he’d scraped — like filling in missing syllables. She was his reliable Igor. His Quasimodo with a can.) So she held it, her eyes burning a little, and kept rubbing circles into his shoulder.
They didn’t want to be conventional – not conventional grievers anyway. No therapy, no sitting on park benches watching healthy couples run by in matching jogging suits while tears dropped from their mournful eyes. They didn’t want to be the type of people who yearned. They could live without. They would decidedly not yearn.
Doctor’s orders, after all. “I’m not telling you anything will be fixed and working again. But for your own sake, remember that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” Having completed his stock parting advice to those for whom he couldn’t do anything else, the doctor had smiled and slipped out of the room with a nod. The combination of majesty and singsong lilt in his Indian accent reverberated in Hollie’s ears. She could be sweet as honey, definitely. But did they really want flies? She looked at Dana. What else was there to do but nod at each other and agree to agree with whatever the doctors told them?
They decided laughter was the sweetest medicine. Laughter and a good oldie. “Teen Angel.” “Leader of the Pack.” “Last Kiss.” They would sing all the time. Over breakfast, they decided how many songs should be sung by lunch. In between they told knock-knock jokes.
They fed their minds. Foreign films, classic books, even thoroughly covering the business section of the paper. They fed their bodies. Dana prepared his homemade salad dressings and signature sauces. Hollie told him he was still a genius of the culinary senses.
They didn’t use the insurance money for a new car. What good was living in Center City, that nucleus, if you were always driving away from it? They could slide right out of their ground floor apartment and see everything Philadelphia had to offer without even a flight of stairs (and to think they’d originally wanted a second-floor apartment!), or a car, or a special van electronically lowering its gate to meet them. They did things around the city they’d never done before. It felt good to sidle off the sidewalk and onto cobblestone, into the past, with its places taken care of for centuries. As the wheelchair bumped along in front of her, Hollie figured this was OK: it was good for Dana to feel the ground, where he was going. One of the reasons they’d chosen this chair was for its durability on the uneven streets; they’d also been looking for maneuverability, for around the apartment. And, what they hadn’t thought of on their own: portability, weight. “This is the model I always recommend when the wife will be doing all the carrying,” the salesman had said. She’d since referred to the salesman as a pimp, helping to round out a threesome with the perfect companion for them both.
They noticed those sights they had passed each day, and now they let themselves be sucked in as tourists: Independence Hall, Independence Mall, the looming skeletal remains of Benjamin Franklin’s house that just dared lightning. They sensed they were fulfilling an American duty by collecting any available pamphlets. They hoarded copies of “We The People” in eighteenth-century script, the ss and fs so comfortable filling in for each other.
“When in the course of human events . . .” Dana had taken to beginning whenever he needed a break from sight-seeing to have his catheter bag emptied.
Hollie insisted they spend more time with their lesbian friends. Audrey and Gayle always joked that they were making things work without the requisite parts.
“You’d be surprised how many things aren’t so necessary,” Audrey often laughed.
Gayle was a biologist, Audrey a lawyer. They didn’t just make things work – they made them work splendidly. They had completely, independently renovated an old West Philadelphia row house into a work of art. Corinne, their daughter, was a violin prodigy, a spelling bee whiz, a tennis star. Audrey and Gayle were the ones Hollie and Dana had called for ideas when they needed to make the apartment as wheelchair-friendly as possible. Dana-fying the apartment, Corinne had called it.
“I can’t talk – I’m up to my armpits in papier-mâché.” Gayle’s voice sounded far away; Hollie could tell she was cradling the phone between her shoulder and her chin. “Tuesday is Big Boom Day in the fourth grade.”
Hollie’s leave of absence from her job at an elementary school – she was a speech therapist – had made her forget about all those special events crammed into the last few weeks before summer vacation. “Big Boom Day?” she asked, twisting the phone cord around her wrist and thinking of Gayle’s sleek portable.
“All the kids make model volcanos, and they set them off all at once.”
“How? I’d think the schools would be avoiding explosives.”
“Apparently all you need is a little vinegar and baking soda to make things happen,” Gayle said.
Something popped in the background, and Corinne’s disappointed, yet hopeful voice sang out in response: “Ooh, sooo close!” Hollie pictured their butcher-block kitchen set up as a laboratory. Cluttered with their familial effort. She looked around her own spotless kitchen; she’d stayed up the night before, using a special marker to fill in the scratches the chair had made on the lower cabinets and cleaning the kitchen from top to bottom till it gleamed, before curling into her side of the bed a little after two a.m.
She could hear Audrey’s voice in the background. “Is that Hollie and Dana? Tell them to go to the Mutter Museum.”
“You should go to the Mutter Museum,” Gayle said to Hollie.
“That medical oddity place? You’ve been there?”
“Yup,” Gayle replied, the sound of successful, potent fizzling and Corinne’s rejoicing (“We did it!”) rising behind her voice. “It’ll make you feel so normal.”
They made themselves as normal as possible. They got in line at the Mutter Museum. Hollie couldn’t imagine it was always this crowded. The ticket, information, and souvenir desk was perched right in front of the door so that, except for the first two or three people, everyone was standing just outside of the mansion-like building, brushing flies from their personal space. Hollie had thought the museum would be deserted on Memorial Day weekend, but she guessed this crowd made sense for a place that made battlefield death look regal in its lack of pus. As they neared the front of the line, Hollie saw the way the bland-looking ticket seller eyed all the patrons. Looking for what was wrong with them, she thought, what had brought them here. What hidden secrets had they come to compare against the freaks of the world? There was nothing visible, though, only what the woman could imagine as she collected money and bestowed badges of entry. When their turn came, the woman looked at Dana, checked her glance, quickly cleared her throat, and nodded them in. “Second door on your left.”
They made their way through the grand central hallway to the cherry-stained door. “This feels like being asked into a parlor for tea,” Hollie said, tentatively crossing the wooden threshold into the museum.
“I don’t think they’ll have Chai.” Dana’s eyes scanned the photo-covered walls from red carpet to textured ceiling. “And that’s all I drink.”
They decided to divide and conquer. Dana stayed on the main floor within the mazes of the old diseases that had been stamped out. All those forgotten pox and colored fevers.
Down the stairs, the gallery opened up into one room, glass cases filled with jars lining the walls. An aquarium of formaldehyde. Or, Hollie thought, the jars looked like portholes — the entire building adrift, like a ship turned away from harbor — so she would look into the glass for signs of life.
Information on Siamese Twins made this place famous. Upstairs was an exhibit of drawings and photographs with shocking captions about P.T. Barnum’s lucrative schemes.
But here, beneath the stairs, were actual conjoined twins. Of course they didn’t look real, the bright white, clay-like skin of their scalps threaded through, suspended from a thin rod in honey-colored fluid. But they were real, down to the scrunched shut eyelids of all newborns. And surrounding them, even more balloons of infant forms were poised afloat in their aquariums. Forceps injuries, stillborns, other descriptions Hollie didn’t want to think very much about. The card propped in front of each jar told the story. What astounded her was that, well, that each one had found its way here. And that each one had been ‘donated’ by the doctor, not the parents.
And yet Hollie knew the parents had somehow signed off on these jars. Walking away, the father helping the mother so soon after a difficult birth, muttering that the left twin would have liked horses, the right one candy. Because, Hollie had noticed, the left one’s legs were slightly bowed, the right one’s hand curled a bit upward as if asking to receive. She knew how carefully voices proceeded when they were needing to convince, how they faltered when resisting belief; these parents would certainly mumble while the doctors would speak meticulously. Inside the wordless glass, the two (or was it one?) specimens pressed together into one, wide chest, face to face, lies passing from one to the other —
She scurried up the stairs to grip the handles of Dana’s chair as if it were a stroller careening down a hill. She found him engrossed in the epidemic nook — a colony of sufferers, an injured gang — and pushed him back out onto Chestnut Street and into the sea of the noisy city.
“What’d you take me out here for?” he snapped, groping for control of the wheels. “You know, there’s something almost friendly about contagiousness.”
“You know what else,” Hollie used her best DJ voice.“There’s nothing quite as contagious as a snappy tune.”
The Platters were always a favorite of his: a band taking its name from the essential trappings of elegant food presentation. “The Great Pretender”: that was a good one. So she took him back to 1956, making her voice drippy with melancholy through every verse.
Dana wrapped his hands around the wheels and pushed on ahead of her, the handles jerking out of her fists. Hollie hurried along behind him as if on a tether, as if she were the entire back-up group to his solo. And she kept singing – they would be nostalgic for bobby socks, not communities of death, like normal people.
When Dana’s father had come home to the hospital after the accident, he’d started punching his son. Actually punching him. Not hard, but still.
“Come on there, tough guy. Like Rocky. Be like Rocky.”
Dana had put on a smirk and thrown his arms up in the air, protectively around his face, halfheartedly flinging them back at his father’s.
“Yo, Adrienne,” Ralph said in a Stallone-like slur, glancing back at Hollie. “Look at this champ. He’ll be up and fighting in no time.” She watched as her father-in-law lowered his aim, fists knocking bluntly against Dana’s legs. Dana stopped boxing back and looked at her.
Hollie wasn’t sure what else to do but, behind his back, give her father-in-law the finger. Above Ralph’s head, Dana smiled at her, fists still coming at him.
Since the hospital, Ralph had only been to visit once, but he hadn’t ever come to visit all that often before the accident either; he rarely stepped a foot outside South Philly. Today, being a national holiday and all, he made an exception — though not without a grudge. Ralph was the kind of Philadelphian who waxed horrorstricken when he met someone who’d never tasted a cheesesteak. He was also the kind of Philadelphian Hollie always wanted to grab by the throat, not to strangle, but to learn the strange flexings that produced the accent. Ralph said ‘wuder’ to describe what he drank and ‘byoo-dee-ful’ to describe . . . he didn’t say ‘byoo-dee-ful’ all that often, actually. Sometimes, maybe, she did want to strangle him, too.
“Ya know how your mother would act around you, if she was still around?” Ralph pointed his finger as he spoke. “She’d cry all night over a bottle of red wine, I promise you. Now what the hell good does that do? You and me, we’re gonna be men about all this. What d’ya say we drink a few six packs?”
Ralph’s complaints about his ex-wife were usually of the red wine versus beer variety. He still complained about the name she’d chosen for their only son. Apparently, when Ralph had objected to ‘Dana,’ she had found new inspiration in her favorite Johnny Cash song, “A Boy Named Sue.” Ralph had put his foot down at ‘Dana.’ Ralph was always bringing up his ex-wife; before she had become his late ex-wife, he always wanted to know exactly what she was up to, and he always wanted to comment on how she’d have been better off staying put than running off to do whatever the hell it was she was doing. Dana’s mother, on the other hand, had only mentioned her ex when expressing gratitude that she didn’t have to put up with him anymore. “Not that I wish him harm,” she’d say, “but phew!” Hollie had never known whether to laugh as her mother-in-law swept arm across forehead and flung pretend sweat onto the floor.
As Ralph finished his speech, he looked at Hollie. She knew that was her cue to invent an errand — or play dumb and Ralph would make her unwelcomeness clear. Once when Dana had missed out on a promotion, his dad had suggested an outing to a strip club. Hollie hadn’t been invited, but she rarely was. Ralph would never trust her prim New England birthplace: that part of Connecticut that hadn’t even absorbed a splash of Brooklyn into its voices. He often looked at her as if she were somehow boyish and inept, like she didn’t quite cut it, couldn’t quite satisfy her man, wasn’t all there. She was Lady MacBeth to him, just begging to be unsexed so she could plunge a dagger into a man’s chest with as much gusto as she could muster.
Dana looked at her apologetically as his dad got up to meander through the kitchen. Ralph picked up each plastic utensil, each pot holder, and looked at it as if it had been the undoing of his son’s manhood: had the accident not happened, a paring knife probably would’ve slipped and severed some nerves anyway. A cook of all things after a long line of plumbers, housepainters, and a healthy smattering of veterans. Though Hollie figured a vet’s wheelchair might be a badge of masculinity in Ralph’s eyes.
She shrugged. “OK. I’ll call Audrey, or Gayle, or Audrey and Gayle.”
“That’s how I fell for the Leader of the Six Pack,” Dana replied with a smile.
“Eureka!” Ralph exclaimed, yanking a six pack from their fridge. He winked at Hollie: she had finally done something right.
She took a cab west from Center City across the bridge, over the Schulkyll and the tracks to Thirtieth Street Station, to meet Gayle on campus. Officially the university was closed for the day, taking twenty-four hours off from its burdens, but Gayle had insisted a small-to-medium-sized emergency at the lab shouldn’t be left for the morning. She had overcome the crisis with a single bound, and now she could recline with Hollie on The Button, an oversized modern art piece, gazing across the green at the gothic architecture of the administrative halls. During the year this sculpture was a popular spot. The cracked-button design created the perfect slope for professors’ kids to use the white plastic surface as a slide. And you never knew when you’d be startled by the heads of neighborhood kids who had ducked underneath to pop up through the buttonholes. Gayle had heard from student workers in her lab that “Under The Button” was rated the number one place on campus to do it. But right now it was summer session, and The Fourth, leaving the campus’s paths thinly populated.
Hollie crossed her feet. “God, this thing is comfortable. And so, so ugly.”
“But it’s Corinne’s favorite story. Ben Franklin was looking out here for a place to put his university, his button popped off, he found it, and – voila! – that would be the center of campus.”
“That’s Corinne’s favorite story? I would have pegged her for a sci-fi fanatic.”
“Nah, she’s more into history, material culture. Pots and pans, just the facts, like Audrey. She just humors me by letting me teach her what’s in each petri dish at the lab.”
“But I taught her her diphthongs.” Hollie toyed with her top button to test its potential for tearing off and sprouting an institution.
“Yes, the diphthongs are yours.” Gayle started to get up and straighten her skirt. “Well? Home for dinner?”
“Depends.” Hollie didn’t budge.
“Can I pop off my father-in-law somewhere in West Philly?”
Gayle laughed. “At least you got out of the house for a little while. I remember when Corinne was a baby, we never went anywhere unless a relative came to visit.”
True, Hollie hadn’t been anywhere without Dana much since her life had been, well, Dana-fied.
And – also like a new mother – she had suddenly become the kind of woman who wore her hair very short, the time spent on her appearance now a dispensable part of her day. Her locks spun out in short spurts as if her head were fizzling.
Gayle began her walk home, just to the west of campus, and Hollie headed back east, swerving slightly north toward Chestnut Street. Over the bridge again, on foot this time, down into the twenties.
She wasn’t sure it would be open on the Fourth of July, but of course it was, the faithful gatekeeper letting all pilgrims come and rest their eyes on people who’ve got it worse. Hollie handed over her dollars, hoping the woman wouldn’t recognize her the next time she came, or the next. She crossed the hall to the glossy wooden door, the rolled-out red carpet. Tea time again. The place had a nineteenth-century-ness about it. Victorian politeness dwelled here: the politeness of a shrunken head collection kept in immaculate order by tuxedoed domestic servants.
She’d named the conjoined twins Richie and Buddy. The plumper boy hanging all by himself in the next jar was, of course, the slightly less big Big Bopper. Their jars shone when infused with the tragedy of rock ‘n roll. Their names in lights. Anyone and anything needed someone to come visiting.
Counting the zigzags of the cross stitch (almost fully camouflaged, yet still there) that had been threaded through their scalps to keep the boys suspended, Hollie thought of the smiling kids who pushed their heads through the holes of The Button, their baseball caps like thimbles. The pit between these two threadings held the strange pairings of her mind: the difference between birthdays and mortuaries, the difference between the tastes of the t in ‘paralytic’ and the t in ‘death.’
As she came out of the building, a handful of shirtless men with their chests painted red, white, and blue, stumbled drunkenly by, almost running her over. “Happy birthday, America!” one screamed, grabbing Hollie’s shoulders and planting a sloppy kiss over her nose and upper lip before continuing his rampage toward the debris of the Broad Street parade.
When Hollie got home, she found the men on the small balcony: empty beer cans, Dana fast asleep, Ralph kicking at the wobbly table leg.
“Oh, hey,” Ralph said when he saw her. She stepped outside and started collecting the cans into an orderly bunch. “So you teach the sign language, right?”
“No,” she said, not looking up. “I’m a speech therapist.” She’d corrected him a million times, but it wasn’t worth bickering over. She remembered what the doctor said: honey.
“Yeah, that’s it. You know, that could work out, I think. You teach little punks to talk and Dana shuts ’em up with his food.” He laughed, and she almost did, too.
But when Hollie looked up to smile at him, his eyes were elsewhere. He had turned toward Dana, intent on gently swatting the mosquitoes from his son’s legs.
Hollie let the cans be and sat down to watch the sun complete its setting. As the sky darkened, the first fireworks bloomed above, launched from the art museum’s famous Rocky steps that everyone had to run up once, just once. Her father-in-law kept his vigil well into the dusk.
Weeks later, in the thickness of a very late August, it was too muggy for the balcony. Traditionally, when held captive by heat waves or blizzards, they’d put on The Beatles and twist and shout till they dropped. Now they opted for ice cream. The fragile architecture of the perfect sundae brought out their best teamwork skills. The counters were too high for Dana, so they did all their food preparation at the table now. Dana’s chair had flip-back armrests they’d paid extra for so he’d be able to sit this close to a tabletop. They were a nuisance in restaurants, getting in the waiter’s way. “But I’m a cook, not a waiter,” he’d said, snapping both armrests back in one, quick motion. “Draw!” Hollie had replied.
“Can you believe there are people in the world who never let themselves indulge like this, ever?” Dana asked, licking chocolate fudge from his fingertips.
“Savages,” said Hollie. She concentrated on drawing a scalloped edge of whipped cream around her bowl. “Even fancy-schmancy gourmet cooks want ice cream.” She felt relaxed, ready to fill herself up with sugar.
“Wanna watch my video?” Dana asked.
Hollie jumped up to get it. She always wanted to watch his video. They had made it about a year back as a mock-pitch for the food network, but Dana insisted that if he ever really did try out, this was exactly how he would do it.
The cardboard sign appeared first: “For the Love of Lasagna: Cooking and Romance with Chef Dana Lennox.”
“Chivalry is all senses,” the video Dana began, his voice flirting with a Spanish accent. “As is cooking. People think they know that romance and food are all about the senses: taste, smell, even hearing since you have to be attuned to the right level of sizzle.” Hollie had zoomed in with the camera as Dana winked. “But do you know what the world’s finest chefs know? Touch is as important to cooking as it is to courting. Only through touch can the promise of smell and taste be consummated.” Like a matador, he waved a red napkin. “On today’s show we will talk about –” He raised his palm and paused. “The Weight of The Dough in The Hand.”
“I look like I’m asking for money,” Dana said, letting his spoon clang into his empty bowl. “Spare a sixpence, guvnuh?”
Hollie giggled. “You’re kind of a cross between Don Juan and a street urchin.”
Dana returned her giggle, and she looked up to see him grasp the table and lift himself halfway out of the chair. “God bless us, every one,” he squeaked, grabbing the ice cream scooper and thumping it along the formica like a crutch.
Hollie cackled, shaking her head at him. He could make her laugh forever with his dumbest jokes. Yet he never thought of himself as a Funny Person. He responded to her laughter with a bewildered look, like when she’d agreed to marry him. “Really?”
Really, although acquaintances they ran into at the grocery store told them they were dealing with all of this like champs, she couldn’t help noticing the increased frequency of those bewildered looks. When she wasn’t there, she knew, there was nothing for him to promise. She wondered if this was when the hands came out of their oven mitts to search for some territory of response. Recently Dana had learned to haul himself in and out of bed without her help, and she had wanted to give him a gold star for it. He deserved it for taking care of himself this way. But soon, except maybe to help with the catheter, she’d have no reason ever to touch him.
He used to tell her that chefs were people born with their nerves abnormally close to the surface. Now he was framed in with metal edges. All of the armor trapping the inner knight. He was bionic. Yes, it could be worse, but knocked right off his feet (how romantic it sounded!), food and love weren’t at hand-level anymore. Like recipe books removed to the highest shelf, they were out of reach.
He could probably land a show on the food network now. Angle he could pitch to the execs: representing the ‘less active’ viewers. She watched him kneading on the TV screen — as if he were behind glass and in a jar. Floating like the last pickle.
But looking back at her.
“Maybe I should’ve scripted this part; it’s too rambling,” he said. “Do you have a specific script you tell your students?”
She did. She said the same thing to all the stuttering or silent children who’d been sent from their sunny classrooms to the private chamber of her office. It was a script that stayed with her, the way basil stayed under Dana’s fingernails for days. But scripts were starting to feel too silly, unstable: The Beatles melting into humps of ice cream under their bangs. Dana looked at her expectantly. The phone rang, and Hollie walked across the room to get it.
“It’s the doctor,” she told Dana, turning her back on him and replacing the mouthpiece against her chin.
She had taken Dana in the day before when he had a low-grade fever, and he’d had a culture taken to test for a urinary tract infection. Of course Dana hadn’t felt any other symptoms – urgency, burning.
But these infections were quite common with catheters, the doctor told her now. “Which is why we emphasize hand-washing. On the part of the caregivers.”
Hollie bit down on her lower lip till she tasted the first saltiness of blood. Behind her Dana had turned the TV off and the stereo on. She heard clanging and turned to watch her husband trying to swivel his chair around the small kitchen in time to the music. Knocking over everything in sight. She could barely hear the doctor saying he’d call the pharmacy with the antibiotic prescription – and to be sure she washed her hands.
“It was an infection,” she said, hanging up the phone. Dana didn’t respond, continuing to jerk back and forth in the debris, his face coiled into the unseemly smile of a rock star destroying a hotel room. She maneuvered around him to get to the sink. Ralph would really think she was Lady MacBeth now; she’d have to start washing her hands two dozen times a day, with industrial-strength antibacterial soap. She stuck her hands under the faucet, scrubbing fiercely, and kicking away the things Dana had made fall to the floor.
“Do you really have to knock every damn thing onto the floor?” She yelled over the rush of the water and the boom of the music, still rubbing her hands together. “I just cleaned up in here!” There was a box of tissue at her feet, and she kicked it clear across the kitchen.
She turned around, holding one hand in the other, to face the angry slits of Dana’s eyes. But he wasn’t glaring at her culpable hands; his eyes were aimed at her legs.
They had received an invitation from Marla, one of the teachers at Hollie’s school, who had an annual back-to-school barbecue for the teachers and their families. It had been an honor for Hollie to be invited her first year and each one since. The other class pop-ins and specialists – like ‘Gym Gal’ and ‘Music Man’ – forever straddled the A and B lists of the classroom teachers. Hollie suspected her acceptance had been triggered by her voluntary attendance at PTA meetings; all the teachers thought it just darling of her to show up. She wouldn’t ever have full teacher status in their eyes, she knew, but still each year they had gone to the barbecue, she and her husband, to get back into the swing of things as autumn hit: she to coaching tongue muscles, he to heavier soups. Seeing her colleagues would remind her how close the first day of school really was and how she better get cracking at re-covering her bulletin boards with construction paper whose color hadn’t been warped by the sun. This year Hollie wondered what might have been done in her absence since the rainy March day that had been her last of the school year. In many ways the months since had felt like the non-reality of a stretch of snow days that had lasted and lasted, the way she’d wished they would when she was a kid. But the whiteout was now subsiding. Back to work. This was normal now.
The humidity was brutal in Marla’s backyard as they sat and listened to the stories of the summer. All teachers and their families apparently did the same things: public pools, day camps for the kids, rounds of golf – only sometimes real rather than mini – and voyages out for Italian ices. One in ten had ventured to the zoo or even the shore. Conversation turned, as it always would, to the children.
Finishing her handful of baby carrots, the fifth grade math teacher began to gush. “I was tucking Jeremy into bed the other night, and he said he was sure he loved me, so I asked him, ‘How do you know?’ You’ll never believe what he said! He said, ‘Because you’re sitting on my leg, and I don’t mind.’”
Hollie thought about the last time she’d put Dana to sleep — before he’d mastered getting in and out of bed by himself. (The last time she’d felt him against her, since he couldn’t register her weight as love even if she planted herself squarely on his leg for a month straight.) She’d sit on the edge of the bed, they’d wrap their arms around each other. He’d lift, she’d pull, and they’d end up sprawled on the bed, him on top of her. She knew better than to hesitate under the weight of his body, his breath on her neck, making her eager for him; she’d quickly place her hands on the back of his neck, like how she’d been taught with newborns, and use all her weight to roll him over and off her. Maybe he’d kiss her, hard but swift. This was enough. Everything that mattered to her was neck-up anyway: teaching people to set their vocal cords and will a sound, looking up and out. She was sure Dana thought this way, too; his business also resided in the cave of the mouth. It was the blossoming of taste that was essential to him, not how it all might collect below. She’d get up and help him undress, her fingers those of a disinterested nurse. And he’d fall asleep, the thin tube of the catheter snaking out of his shorts.
Hollie felt an ache in her gut and figured she must be hungry. She caught Dana’s eye and nodded toward the sliding screen door. Excusing themselves to refill on cold drinks, they sifted through the heat into the climate-controlled house with whispers at their backs.
“I’ll be OK in here,” Dana told her once over the ridge of the threshold, his voice gruff, asocial. The way they’d been speaking to each other in the days since his infection. She should go mingle.
She found herself in the kitchen with a congregation of women. She would be helpful, she decided, beginning to deposit lipstick-smeared cups into the top rack of the dishwasher. Marla quickly nudged her aside. “Excuse me, Hol. I just want to show all of you this nifty feature up here: the extra flip down rack. See?”
Hollie stepped back and almost onto the youngest of Marla’s gaggle of daughters, who was pouring juice for herself.
“Oh, Jessie!” One of the other women said and stepped in to do the pouring. “My youngest does the same thing. Juice everywhere.”
The women started buzzing about ground cereal in their carpet and stains in their tablecloths that would remain until the next ice age. As they talked, Hollie saw a commercial for a dream kitchen materialize before her eyes: one woman cutting vegetables, another loading the dishwasher, another pouring freshly-brewed iced tea into midget glasses. Lots of wives taking care of everything. She backed away from the conversation, word by word left out, and found herself edged to the den where the men were watching football.
There wasn’t any conversation in this room but for a few comments directed toward the TV about great or miserable plays. She knew a little about sports; she took a seat on the large ottoman and watched intently, making herself interested.
Dana had somehow reeled out of the male orbit, into the kitchen. She could hear his voice among the women, talking about the amazing dip recipe he’d discovered. The women were oohing and aahing over it: it was something they’d like, their husbands would gobble up, their kids would even try. Hollie tried to think of something funny she could say to mock his dip and reenter the kitchen world. But any tickertape of words that passed through her head came off spiteful. Unappetizing. She made herself search for the score among the graphics on the TV and made herself really care, too, which team acquired each plot of land, like in a Monopoly game to the death.
God bless us, every one. It was the Disney version that was in her head: a miniature Mickey Mouse with a teetering crutch and a sickeningly sweet voice. But Christmas was four months away, she had never been carolling in all her life, and she wasn’t even a mother who’d been subjected to animation till her blood was streaming technicolor. People didn’t realize the brute strength of a well-spoken cliché, like the word ‘Christmas’ itself. When she was young the other kids used to gather around her and sing, “Deck the halls with boughs of holly!” She had hated that.
Dana’s cooking tips continued to leak out into the sports room, his voice sounding knowledgeable and worldly. Almost fatherly in its advisory tone about low-fat cooking. Hollie allowed herself to look back at the kitchen and saw Marla making her (Hollie’s) husband comfortable around her (Marla’s) island. He sat in the center of the standing female ring, appearing so casual he could have been in his old boxer shorts. She thought of past nights when he couldn’t sleep, stubbornly grumbling there was no way he would do to his kid what his parents had done. No, sir, his son would be named Frank, Bud, Jack. Something guttural with hard consonants. “Out of the kitchen, onto the football field,” he’d cracked.
One of the women started complaining about not having a waist since delivering her last child and rolled up the side of her shirt to prove it. All of the women commiserated, hooking their hands around their waists to show how the indentation was less than it used to be. And Dana was there, joking with them and – did she see it correctly? – flirting! Pinching them in the sides while they squealed with delight.
Hollie had always held the idea of a child as something inside of her she wasn’t quite ready for, like an icicle latched on to one of her ribs. She had figured that someday she’d just warm it up, break it off, and toss it on the table.
She would never be the kind of woman who lost her waist.
“You know what they say: God bless us, every one.” Did she say that out loud? The men may have glanced at her uncomfortably but were back in the world of the game. One man next to her, more fragile than the others with his thick glasses and marginalized ottoman seat, responded.
“We just rented that cartoon for the kids. They loved it – even in this August heat.”
“You know,” Hollie replied. “That’s a Dickens novel.”
“Really?” Hollie couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic or not.
“Have you seen the new security measures they’re putting in for the Liberty Bell?” The man in the glasses had apparently lost all interest in the game. “You know what they say: if it’s already broke, don’t fix it! It’s not as if it’s not already cracked, right?”
“Well, you know what else they say,” she said, picking up a drink someone had left on the floor. “If life gives you a cracked monument, make lemonade!” She swung the glass into the air.
“They say that?” he asked.
Through the archway to the kitchen, Dana was toasting her, with bravado: a pretend glass in an empty hand. To Yoko.
The man next to her raised his torso, revealed an impassioned need to speak of removing history’s cracks with his solemn fist of a face. “I mean, who wants a cracked national monument? Fill it in! Solder it up! We’re a melting pot, for pete’s sake!” His voice was almost booming, and the other men rolled their eyes, grumbled, and turned up the volume on the TV. But four-eyes never faltered. “Indivisible!” he declared. “Remember indivisible?”
And Hollie was still listening: he was in his element now. She would give him an A for enunciation. He could heal the Liberty Bell with that enunciation. This was all what she taught: you could change everything with a slight nuance of the tongue and teeth, the right geometry of the mouth. Enter the conversation of the world by the bridge of your larynx.
She unfolded herself from the sinking cushions of the ottoman and excused herself.
Wasn’t this all part of the script? What she told her students, gently urging them to open their mouths? They talked about it. When kids came to her, closed as oysters, this was how she loosened the jaws and coaxed out something glistening and new.
She first urged her students to tell jokes – a jiggling of the tongue hinge. But if that didn’t work, it was time to tackle that dark secret everyone has one of, that ballad in the gut — something that had to come out.
This was how she fixed things. Or tried to. Even when the cords had been damaged, she’d try to make them talk about that. Pouring soothing, if futile, honey into the throat.
She went back into the kitchen and stood in front of Dana, slowly grazing his Adam’s apple with her thumb. She felt his neck muscles start to contract in anticipation of forming words and she nodded, her chin rising as if carolling with all her might at each and every threshold. Refrains, those old pals.
Just like to a student, she told herself. And she began. “Chin up. Deep breath in. Slowly now. Each tickle of a vibration counts. No one can hear you but me.”
Rebecca Entel is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and University of Wisconsin–Madison. She is Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at Cornell College. Her stories have appeared in Madison Review, Leaf Garden, Joyland Magazine, Eunoia Review, Medulla Review, Unsaid Magazine, Connotation Press, and The Examined Life Journal. She lives in Iowa City.
Photo credit: moni on Flickr