ONLY ON PAPER
Donald, my wife's father, was coming to stay for three days. I wasn't home when the decision was made or I might have protested, but seeing as we're living in one of his houses in a neighborhood he built, it wouldn't have mattered. She told me he was coming when I walked in on her dusting between the buttons on the remote control with a horse hair paintbrush. My wife Katie was an artist, always pushing the edges of her creativity as far as they'd go – explains the ten minute conversation she had with my boss at the zoo about me having chicken pox. “They can cause encephalitis in adults! It's very serious,” she said to him. He bought it, or at least he didn't argue. We spent the next two days cleaning the house top to bottom.
I hadn't seen or even heard from Donald in three years; I'd only been married for four. Last time he came into our home was around Thanksgiving, though we don't celebrate it. Donald and Katie's mother, Margret, were still together then – just barely. Early in their marriage they had tried to have kids, two miscarriages and a stillborn, before Katie “the miracle child.” See, Donald wanted kids more than anything, but after they finally had Katie, he rushed out and got a vasectomy without telling his wife. Loss was too hard on him, Katie always said. I honestly think he was just too stubborn, proud, or honest to get a divorce. Maybe he hoped kids would fix things, make everyone happy again.
Twenty two years later, in the middle of my living room, all the dark hidden shit between them came flooding out after Katie's mom asked, “So when are you two planning on giving us grandbabies?”
Donald rubbed his thick hands along the knees of his cotton dress pants. “Dammit, Maggie, don't ask them stuff like that.”
“Well,” she said through a peppermint she was sucking on, “I want grandbabies and she's not getting any younger.”
Katie put a hand on my thigh and cut her eyes at me. Donald smoothed the hairs on his arm down toward his wrist, dragging his fingers from the cuff of his rolled up sleeves down to his knuckles.
I said, “Well, we've been trying, but -”
Margret clapped her hands together. “Oh, oh, oh, I meant to give you this as soon as I walked in, how stupid of me.” She unsnapped the top of her purse and handed Katie a slender gray clay statue of a cat. “It's a fertility symbol! I made it ages ago and found it in the storage in the attic, of all places. Now I made that,” she put her finger on her lip, tonguing the peppermint back and forth across her mouth, “in my second semester at community college, right before we lost the twins. Right, Don?” She leaned across the arm of her chair toward him, a small cherry wood end table between them.
“I thought you threw out all of that stuff,” he said after a moment.
“Most of it is just packed up in the attic, wrapped in newspaper. I've got dozens of little trinkets if either of you want -” Margret leaned away as Donald heaved himself out of the chair, grabbed the statue from Katie's lap. His neck and chest were flushed under his shirt and his top lip tucked tightly against his bottom lip, but he didn't say a word. He opened the door, stepped out the small patio, and smashed the statue against the brick. My heart pounded, the veins in my neck were close to bursting with blood, but Katie had her face in her hands, crying softly and Margret was looking up at the ceiling fan, pulling air through her teeth.
Katie's thin fingers fished the broken bits of clay out of the grass while I swept the rest off the patio. The three of us spent the rest of the night gluing the statue back together. Katie's mom called it “Frankenkitty” after that, even if it didn't help.
Fall was short that year and winter was unusually warm, not a flake of snow anywhere. That summer was brutally hot, though. When the zoo closed at 7:00pm, I'd stay after and spray all the white concrete walls and walkways with a water hose so the steam would push some of the heat out of the habitats. My boss liked my extra effort so much that she gave me a promotion from “that college dropout who wore the fish costume” to animal caretaker. That night Kate and I planned on celebrating with wine, a nice dinner, and a DVD about a French guy falling in love with a leopard. I was just pulling into the neighborhood when a blackout rolled over the entire county in a wave.
Kate lit some candles and I opened the wine. She said “Let's drink on the roof,” and I agreed. We talked for two or three hours up there on the roof. It was warm and humid, but the sky was too amazing to even care. No lights for miles – it felt like we were floating through a galaxy, nothing between us and the stars. She was sitting beside me on the slope of the roof; I was laying beside her, hands behind my head to keep the shingles from snagging my hair.
“I want to have a kid,” I said.
“Well,” she started. Whatever she was going to say, she choked it down.
“Do you not think we're ready?”
“I'm not sure. You?” She scrubbed her moccasin back and forth along the scratchy roof.
“I think so. But I wont make you. On the ride home I thought about not being around kids at work anymore. I'm going to miss it, ya know?” I sat up and put my hand on the small of her back. “I love you, Kit-kat.”
“I love you, too,” she said.
Eight weeks later Katie had a miscarriage. She was painting, alone, in the guest house when she noticed. I came home, watched a documentary on African poachers, and took a shower before I started getting worried. The fear of finding her locked inside that house, dead from paint fumes, wasn't something I admitted to. She needed her outlet and I promised to give her free rein of that house. I heard her through the door, sobbing. The door wasn't locked. She was on her knees scrubbing the chair at her drafting table. The bleach fumes made my lungs feel tight and the spot of blood, cleaned to a pale pink on the chair, hurt my chest.
After we lost the baby, I heard her on the phone with him – her dad. She didn't know I was awake, I guess, but the walls aren't exactly thick. “I can't do this, daddy. I can't. I don't know what to tell him.” She talked to him for a while, but by the time she came back to bed I was leaving for work. I kissed her head and told her she was beautiful, which she was. She told me she started coffee and she loved me. She said, “I really do, Jeff,” after.
Now her father was coming to stay.
We had already cleaned the house better than it had ever been cleaned, but she continued to find flakes of dust in nooks and crannies. She had barely stopped to eat and sleep for three full days. Every time I left or cut on the television, that nagging tickle in the back of my head, knowing she was still cleaning, would pull at me until I started cleaning too. I slid one of the heavy kitchen chairs under the light and unscrewed the frosted glass globe, scraped all of the dry insect husks into the garbage, and fumbled with the screws to get it back on straight.
“Jeff,” she said “still have your shoes on?”
“Yeah? They're clean. I haven't even been outside today,” I said.
She ran her fingers through her hair near the scalp and pulled on it with a sigh. She slapped at my legs and pulled the cushion out from under my dancing feet. My fingers were starting to go numb from gravity pulling the blood from my hands before I got the thing straight. She pushed the cushion into the sink and doused it with the sprayer.
“Look, Katie, I'm sorry.” I hopped off the chair and pushed it back under the table. “I'm doing my best here.”
She tossed the bottle of soap into the empty side of the sink and wiped the hair out of her eyes. Her fingertips were wrinkled and bloated.
I slid my hand along the cool counter top toward her. “Just talk to me, sweetheart.”
“I've said all I need to say!” She started scrubbing at the cushion again. “If you don’t care to listen, you can go to a hotel while daddy is here.”
I rested my chin on her shoulder. She kept scrubbing, as if trying to clean the tiny flowers printed on the fabric off.
“You know I listen to you, Kit-kat. I soak in every,” I kissed her neck, “little,” kiss, “word.” She tilted her chin up and her shoulders drooped under my hands. I kept delivering soft kisses up and down her neck, paying special attention to the crook of her jaw. Her black hair started fraying from the bun she twisted it in, sticking to the sharp stubble of my cheek. The phone rang.
I said, “Just ignore it.” She pushed back against me, twisting away before hurrying to answer the phone.
There was a time in my life that I hoped to be a pharmacist. I thought about coming to visit my parents in a new Acura and telling my mother about investment portfolios and the addition I was putting on her house. Reality has me living in someone else's house, married to someone's daughter, driving a beige Volvo, spraying bird shit off of concrete for two hours every other day with a pressure washer.
I hadn't even heard from my parents in months. Two or three calls a year – birthday, Christmas, birthday. I rarely thought of them, if I'm being honest. We were a only a family on paper. But for some reason I hoped one of them was calling. Remind Katie I have a family, that I wasn't hatched or manufactured in a lab somewhere.
She tapped her fingernail on the receiver and said, “No. No, thank you. You too. Bye,” and hung up. “Cable guy, wanted us to upgrade.”
“What'd you tell him?” I said without thinking. She didn't bother answering.
“Daddy is going to be here in the morning,” she said and absently wiped her hand across the top of the kitchen table. “This place is still a disaster.”
I wrung the water out of the cushion. “It's not a disaster. It's clean. It's cleaner than it's ever fucking been. I've never been in a house as clean.” A disaster! Really?
“There's still a lot to do,” she said. “I still have to steam the drapes and clean the oven, you need to make the door not squeak when it opens – it looks like we're not taking care of the house.”
“No. No, I'm not doing another goddamn thing until you tell me what this is about.”
“What did you say?”
I was trying not to shout. “You heard me – I'm not doing another god-damn-thing unless you tell me what this is really about. Your 'daddy' isn't going to care how clean the fucking oven is.”
She leaned against the table, looking down at the yellow wood. “And how exactly would you know a single fucking thing about my father?”
“Tell me.” I dropped the cushion back into the sink, and walked across the room to her. “Tell me.” I grabbed her shoulders, pulling her around to face me. I was leaning closer to her now, she looked angry and frightened. “Tell me. Tell me. Tell me what the fuck is going on.” I could barely see her face anymore, my nose was against her nose, my breath breaking against her face. “Tell me!”
“I'm pregnant,” she said. She pushed her forehead against mine; oily sweat smeared between us. “I'm scared.”
I slid my hands to her neck and held her head, our faces still pressed together. “Me too,” I said. “It'll be fine. We'll be fine.”
“Yeah.” She pecked her lips against mine, a salty tear hung from her top lip. “I need to paint.”
I should have said, Stay, Katie. Don't lock yourself in that fucking house, talk to me. Just talk to me. Tell me what to do, tell me what's going to happen. “Okay,” I said.
Katie had been in her studio for three hours. I was still trying to think of what to say when the phone rang. I muted the television as a water buffalo slammed through a pack of hyenas.
“Who's this?” a deep voice boomed.
“The guy who answers the phone in this house. Who's this?”
“Where's Katie gone?” he asked. Donald sounded different on the phone, louder, but was still a rushed businessman.
“She's in her studio right now, I think. I'll take a message.” I thought about getting a pen. “Tell her that her daddy decided to stay at the Hilton tonight and tomorrow. Tell her to call me if she needs something, she's got my number. Otherwise, I'll see her before I head back to Sydney.” He hung up.
“Kate,” I said through the door. “Can I come in?” The guest house was basically one large room – a horseshoe shaped kitchen with an island that doubled as the dining room, a bathroom no bigger than a walk in closet with a standing shower – no tub, and the rest was living room. There were originally two couches, a small TV, and a fold down wall mounted bed. Katie wanted to keep the bed, just in case someone wanted to stay, but the rest we sold. It hadn't occurred to me until that moment, waiting on her to answer, that we never even asked permission before selling all the furniture. I shout through the door again, “Katie?”
I twisted the knob, surprised she hadn't locked me out. I swung the heavy door open and saw her look over the top of her drawing easel at me, her headphones clamped tightly to her ears like a pair of violet baby marmosets clinging to their mother. I motioned for her to pull down her headphones. She did.
"What'cha working on?” I asked.
“Repressed emotional trauma and a killer headache. You?” She continued drawing.
“I'm trying here, Kate.”
“Do you need something, honey?” The scribble-scrip-scrape of her pencils on the paper got louder.
“Your dad called,” I said. The room was full of old paintings, ceramic statues, and drawings hung everywhere. My favorite was a 20”x20” painting she hung on the ceiling, right next to the light fixture, of a forest canopy in fall – dozens of colors and shades of leaves all bleeding together into the blue-green sky above. Thin rays of light trickled through the branches, positioned so the globe would be the sun. It wasn't on at the moment, just a lamp in the corner behind Katie.
“What did he say?” She stopped drawing, clamped both of her hands onto the top of the easel, and craned over it to look at me.
“He said,” I sighed – still looking up at the leaves, “that he isn't coming. He's staying at the Hilton until Sunday.” I ran my fingers along a watermelon painting hung on the wall; I always enjoyed the bumpy texture paint has on canvas. “Maybe he's staying with friends?”
"Daddy doesn't have any friends. Must be a girl.” Her eyes flared for a moment, but she blinked back whatever it was. “Good for him.” She picked up a thick rod of charcoal and began scrubbing it on the paper in front of her. I walked around the easel as she made the long, heavy strokes down the page.
“She's beautiful” I said. Katie put the charcoal along the lip of the easel and started mixing a bit of red paint, squeezing some thinner into it from an old ketchup bottle. It was a portrait of a young girl, around five, smiling. She had Katie's dimples and hair but my eyes and wide mouth. Her hair snaked down her cheeks and shoulders, a hand coming from somewhere off the painting slid a yellow flower into her hair. The little girl's hands, a little dirty around the fingernails, cupped an earthworm.
Katie blew across the picture, bits of charcoal dust blasted from the picture. She took a long, thin brush and signed her name across the bottom, near the base of the disembodied hand.
“She would have been. Beautiful, that is,” Katie said. I put my hand on her shoulder and
squatted down beside her. She brushed the blackness off of her fingers onto her pants, turning away from me.
“Katie, you have to stop this.”
“Shut up,” she said.
“It's not your fault. You know it's not and -”
She pushed my hand off of her shoulder and said, “Then who's fault is it? Mom's? God's? Since I can't blame either of them, I guess it's got to be me, then!” She stood, knocking her pencils and charcoal onto the floor. “How long will it be, Jeff? How long until it's you staying at the fucking Hilton instead of being with me?” She was taking deep ragged breaths, clenching the bottom of her shirt.
I didn't know what to say, put me there again right now and I'd still not know what to say to her. I put my arm around her waist and pressed my face against her stomach. My breath caught in my throat, like a stone. Kate grabbed my hair and tried, weakly, to push my head away.
“I love you,” I said into the dark blue fabric of her shirt. Eventually, she slid her hands onto my neck and rested the point of her chin on top of my head. For a while we hid behind from the world inside that house.
She ran her hands along my shoulders, down my back, and back to my ears. She kept doing it, rubbing and touching, sniffling above my head. I smelled her shirt, her scent, her skin and soap and perfume. I could hear her heart and her lungs, her liver was working – I wondered what they sounded like, livers. Her organs were like my organs. So many were just alike, sitting between my hands and my face, her back and her stomach. She was crying now, tears dripping onto my scalp, her hands were under my shirt, pressing harder into my skin. There was an egg in there, her body. Somewhere inside her was a part of me and her combined. Growing. Changing. I closed my eyes and could see her. The little girl, digging in the dirt for worms. Showing me, proud of herself. I'm proud too. So's her mom, sliding a flower in her hair. I can't see her, the mother. She's just an arm. It's thin and delicate, like a branch. I reach for her arm and grab it, gently, like a bird.
JB LITTLE has been writing since adolescence, but his first real introduction to fiction writing came during his time enrolled in the Computer Science program at Mississippi State University. In the years following, despite the major academic setback, JB pursued his love of fiction all the way from Starkville to the University of Southern Mississippi. He is extremely happy to have his work featured during his final semester as an undergraduate.