HOUSEKEEPING IN SEVEN CIGARETTES
by Rachel Oestreich
Margo is eight years old, and she doesn’t care about the New Mexican heat, or the drought, or that it is dry and her lips are cracked and her skin is slick with sweat. Her hair sticks to her forehead and neck in thick, twine-like clumps. Her father smells like he always does: motor oil and cigarettes.
Her mother brings home a dog when she’s supposed to bring home milk. The black fluff-ball almost looks like a porcupine; it runs around the living room and chases shards of gravel her father tosses, the ones gathered from the driveway. He sits on the couch. Margo sits next to him, silently wishing her father will let them keep the dog, certain he was too obstinate to let it be so.
Above them, the ceiling fan whirs and kicks up the dust mites, then scatters them in the same place.
Margo’s father says, “I told you we weren’t getting a dog.”
Her mother replies, “His name’s Gerald.”
“Stupid name,” her father says. He’s smiling, though, eyes crinkling along the lines of his wrinkles. And Margo has hope.
Margo takes a pebble from her father’s hand and throws it near the kitchen. Her father throws a bigger one toward the door. The dog chases Margo’s, nails clicking and scrabbling on the tile.
Her father chuckles; Margo likes that sound. She likes when her mother comes around the back of the couch and puts her arms around him, likes that they look like a family. “You can take him back to old Bax up the road if you want,” her mother says.
Her father pauses for a good long minute, rolls the gravel around his palm, makes the pieces clink together. Gerald wanders back to them with a rock in his mouth. Drops it at her father’s feet.
Her father grunts, his version of a chuckle, and pulls a cigarette from the box he keeps in his pocket—Margo’s never seen him without it. His lighter click, click, clicks and finally sparks. “We still need milk,” he says. He holds the flame to the end of his cigarette. “Get something cheap for the mutt, too.”
By the time she’s ten, her father is a pack-a-day kind of man, and Margo’s old enough to hate that habit. Sunlight cuts through streaked windows, highlights the color of the walls: an ugly shade of yellow stained an uglier shade of mustard.
She sits at the dining table, taps the black stump of her eraser against the wood surface, stares at the fractions she’s supposed to subtract. “Mom,” she says. “I need help.”
Her mother stands from her end of the table, book in her hand, thumb between the pages. She pulls her chair to Margo’s side, takes a pencil of her own—eraser pink and whole because she isn’t the kind who needs to erase things—and presses lead to page. “Like this, baby girl.”
Margo’s mother drops the pencil, pulls her thumb from her book and lets it close. “Yes, Vince?”
Margo’s father shuffles down the hallway, eyes bloodshot. Worked all night at the auto shop again. Not like they need the money, that’s what Margo’s mother always says; he just likes the work, and when his bosses ask him to stay he doesn’t say no, not because he’s spineless, Margo’s mother says, but because he likes the work, likes accomplishing something. A day-old beard shadows his leathery face. He holds up his cigarette box. “I’m out, Patty. Mind?”
Margo wants her mother to say yes, that she does mind. But her mother doesn’t; she’s not like that. She stands, dress swishing, searching for her black sandals. “You and those damn cigarettes, Vince,” she says. Laughing, amused. Like they’re endearing, those cigarettes.
Gerald lumbers around the kitchen, finally stops next to Margo and ignores her father when he calls his name. Margo considers it a small victory; Gerald always sits by her.
Twenty minutes later, Margo’s mother returns from the gas station, the stench of diesel clinging to her skin, still a better scent than her expired perfume. She kisses Margo’s father on his forehead. Hands over a crinkling, plastic-wrapped carton of Camels.
“Still need help with those fractions, baby girl?”
Margo erases her most recent answer; she’s about to tear through the paper, she’s erased so often. “No, Mom,” she lies. “I figured it out.”
Gerald settles his head on his paws. His tail thumps against hardwood floor, throws up the dust mites. No matter how many times Margo and her mother sweep, they can’t get rid of them.
When Margo is twelve years old, she doesn’t understand why her mother wants to put up a birdhouse. They don’t get any of the jays or swallows that she keeps talking about, just the carrion that go after the rabbit carcasses the coyotes leave behind.
Margo sits in the rocking chair on the porch. Her father’s leveling the birdhouse against the porch support, extra nails between his lips, a hammer in his hand. Behind him, her mother stands a few feet back in the driveway and tells him the house is crooked.
Margo rocks back. Gerald sits next to her. Ninety-eight degrees, no clouds. Margo squints at the glare of the sun and straightens the chair.
Her mother claps. “Right there, Vince.” Wide smile on peach lips; oblivious to sunburn, to the dust stains on her dress.
One whack with the hammer. Another.
Her mother coughs a few times, but the birdhouse is up. Painted an ugly shade of yellow that matches the inside of the house, because it’s the only color of paint they had in the garage.
“What d’you think, Margo?” her mother asks.
A mile out, something big circles over the road. Crow or raven, maybe a vulture. On the ground, Margo’s father lights a cigarette. Her mother coughs again as the wind tosses grit into all their eyes and makes them sting and water.
Smoke curls from her father’s lips.
Margo says, “I think nothing’s going to come live here.”
She doesn’t say: not if they could live somewhere else.
She’s only thirteen years old, and the house feels heavy, like the broken promise of a monsoon rain. Middle of October, still hot. The ceiling fan wheezes on its tiny motor, an ancient contraption ready to die any day now.
Margo’s mother was young, but she’d wheezed. Again and again. “Can’t breathe,” she’d said, or tried to say. Undiagnosed asthma. She suffocated right there on the living room floor at the beginning of September.
Margo hopes her father blames himself.
Desert dust creeps into the crevices of the house, molds into the cracks in the grout between the tile. Won’t leave, or can’t. Blows in when Margo opens a window. Hugs the curtains.
Two packs of cigarettes a day now. All her father ever does anymore is go to work and smoke, and nearly burns the house down when he falls asleep on the couch with a lit cigarette between his fingers.
Margo sits at the dining table, her mother’s sandals on her feet. She runs a knife through a peach and twists the fruit’s flesh around the pit. Even the juice that dribbles onto her plate is murky, like mud.
She stands and opens a window, tries to wave in some fresh air. Gerald follows her into the kitchen and sits at her side; she kicks a stray clump of gravel that’d made it through the back door. The dog trots after it and returns the rocks at her feet. Cheaper than tennis balls.
A whistle from the couch. Gerald’s ears prick up, acknowledging the sound, but he doesn’t move.
“Gerald,” her father calls.
The dog looks his way. Doesn’t move.
The form on the couch rolls over. “Goddamn mutt.”
Margo smiles and scratches Gerald’s ears. “Good boy.”
Margo’s fifteen, and her father steps out for some sharp winter air, but when he steps back in he’s pulling another cigarette from his pocket. Finds his lighter between the couch cushions.
“What’re you working on, Margo?” His voice scratches at her ears, a stray cat eager to be welcomed from the cold.
She stares at her pre-calculus textbook. Refuses to look up. He’s ruined, since her mother died. He blames himself and Margo knows it, and she’s glad until she meets his eyes and sees their nothingness. He’d tried pulling himself together, but now he’s dried up like an ear of corn, a husk shriveled under the sun and all the kernels gone because the damn birds pecked them all out. Nothing left.
Margo doesn’t look him in the eyes, not if she can help it. All she ever sees in them is her mother.
He sits down with her at the table sometimes, tries to help her with homework he doesn’t know how to do, gives up and just sits there. The silence makes them both uncomfortable. He’ll feed Gerald dinner scraps; a bribe to pretend he’s got someone.
Margo still hasn’t answered him; she’s forgotten the question already and she wants him to go away.
“I’m on my last box,” her father says. “I’m going to the station for more.”
There’s a question. A would you go, instead? Or maybe a would you come with me? He’s lonely, but so is she. The answer is no. She erases a few numbers and rewrites them. Peels from her eraser fall to the floor. “I’m busy, Daddy,” she says. “Drive safe.”
After the front door closes, she stands from the table and locks it.
She’s just turned sixteen, and Margo’s really good at convincing herself that she still blames her father. That she hates him.
But her mother was the one who bought more cigarettes.
The birdhouse on the porch decays. Her father won’t let her pull it down.
She sweeps the house three times a day and dusts twice. Keeps the dirt on the outside where it belongs. Locks the front door whenever her father leaves, but then he starts taking his house key with him and what’s the point after that? Gets in either way.
Margo is eighteen years old, and she’s been waiting because last week her father went out for a new carton of cigarettes, and he hasn’t been back since. She’s pretty sure he won’t come back. Maybe he’s dead. Or just gone. To spite him, she cleans out his bedroom and finds one box of cigarettes left, seven still inside.
One at a time, she tosses them over the railing; the aged glow of the porch light barely illuminates them. The empty birdhouse hangs at an angle; it’s always been empty. Margo’s rocking chair groans, a tired sound; it wobbles on the deck, unsteady. When she inhales, she just barely smells the sweetness of pine: the porch and chair are both rotten and peeling and falling apart. The arm of her chair scrapes against the railing like they’re old friends, and it shaves a few splinters from both with a snap.
The last cigarette is in her hand. She puts it in her mouth, paper gritty against her tongue. She wonders what it’s like, smoking, suffocating. Tempting. Just light one.
What she should do is throw it away and rid herself of it for good.
At her feet, Gerald sighs.
Her father wouldn’t miss it. He’s not coming back, probably.
A mile away, the laughter of a pack of coyotes.
The lighter click, click, clicks impatiently when her finger slips trying to spark a flame. Before she even lights it, it leaves a bad taste in the space between her teeth.
Margo holds the cigarette to her lips and fills her mouth with the acrid smoke she’s always hated. She swallows it.
And puts the cigarette to her lips again.
Rachel Oestreich is a Fiction M.F.A. candidate at New Mexico State University, where she received her B.A. in English in 2015. She reads for The Indianola Review, works with the literary magazine Puerto del Sol, and teaches as an Instructor of Record at NMSU.
Image credit: Sonia Belviso on Flickr