by Tamar Jacobs
I was chopping peppers when Ronnie came home. I’d been thinking to go to Safeway to see if there were any open bags of candy I could take from, or maybe walk down to the water to feed my birds, but then I saw him and all those ideas went up like smoke from my head. I hadn’t seen him in two years. He got out of the car and stepped into the sun, one whole big part of his skin a new lake of blue. I saw later up close it was all made of little tattoos lifting and blending together, but from behind my side of the kitchen window that day, it looked like he’d been afflicted with some kind of blue sickness. Down his arm and up his neck and some up on his forehead right above his eyebrows and a little trickle from just one eye. He’d gone away, got dipped in color and come back. I found this extraordinary and mysterious, and it kept me up at night thinking about it, touching my own skin wondering what it might feel like to go blue.
After Ms. Eva got done bumping into everything around her with her car like always when she parks, and they slammed their doors closed and went inside her house, I squeezed my eyes shut and chopped as fast as I could, felt tiny sharp prickles of cold pepper water punching into my fingers. I could not look down, because if I did the pepper water became the licking tongues of snakes trying to kiss me away from my knife, trying to slither out from under the blade I was hacking on them with. But as hard as I could I refused to see and they gave up moving and I heard Ms. Rose roll over the loud spring on the couch and I tried even harder because I could not let her hear me chopping in a crazy-sounding way or she would know I’d been skipping pills again. I would not feel sorry about those snakes. Would not, would not, no, I told myself.
I would not then, but when I sleep, I can’t stay as careful about my thoughts as when I am awake. That night while I slept feelings began to creep in about those snakes I killed. They were just being themselves. Being snakes. And there I had been chopping them to pieces trying to pretend I thought they were peppers.
I try and scramble up my thoughts while I’m skipping pills so no one can get in my head and find out. It’s Ms. Rose’s job to watch me. She’s had four of us altogether. I’ve never met the other three. They came before me, one at a time. Now it’s my turn. She gets paid to make sure we take our pills and stay out of trouble. I took pills for the first time ever with her. After three or four days he was gone. He’d been part of me for so long. Maybe not so long as all that, but it feels like it. He can feel like a mean boss at a job you can’t figure out how to leave and you get tired and need to rest but you can’t because you can’t figure out just where the door even is to get out. Like I am a slave, like I know they have today, right now. Right while I tell this to you. I’ve seen it on TV. They smuggle them in cars and boats. Some of them little children. They make them make clothes in dangerous rickety buildings in foreign countries that crash down and bury people alive. It’s right on TV. Anyone could see it but no one seems to care about any of this kind of stuff but me.
With him gone for the first time, all of a sudden everything was empty. A street was just a street. When he’s with me he does things. Sends a deep blue Mazda gunning up at me when I want to cross North Avenue. Squeals the brakes and the driver who is him waves me across like a dare. Go on, your move. Cross. I see men with faces that if you look them in the eye they melt into growling gold lion snouts, their nostril holes glistening, the real deal like you were at the zoo, but without the bars between you. Little kids who if they look at me, lift off the sidewalk like Ghostbusters wearing those air tanks on their backs. They don’t touch their feet down and they look at me daring me say something, go ahead.
I do not. I know if I do they just will fall soft back down like snow to the ground. And their mothers will be looking at me like I am crazy.
When this happens too hard or too sudden, one of the things I can do is run. I try and look like I am exercising even though I’m not wearing the tight special material black pants or the fancy sneakers the real exercising people wear. If I can’t hold a conversation because he is talking too loud, this is what I do. If it’s scream and scare people or run, I choose run. It helps to push my legs so hard my lungs burn and after a certain amount of pushing his voice quiets. My heart pounds up my ears from inside. My legs burn my arms burn my lungs burn. I force the air around me to churn up into wind. I burn my way through the air. I know I look crazy running with no running clothes on my body. I don’t care. It’s what I am. I am crazy. I don’t care. Look everyone, look, is how I feel about it while this is happening.
Pills make him go away, but enough of them is too much and I start to go floating in a bottle of Aunt Jemima. I think to do something or say something, and it takes so much effort to do it or say it. My words come out sludgy. My thoughts feel like they are circling around a thing but aren’t getting to the quick of what my idea should be. I know as I am forming them that they’re slow thoughts, not good ones.
Also, look, pills make me fat. I eat too much and I weigh too much and I am too slow and I start to drool on certain sounds when I talk. It’s awkward to wipe away drool when I am talking to someone. And if I looked crazy without pills, well, that’s one kind of crazy to look like; quite another to be drooling and fat and like I should be locked up somewhere more secure than Ms. Rose’s. I know when I start catching that quick look when people see me like they understand something they didn’t the moment before, like they’ve put me in a box and think they know what I am, and look, that’s a deficit on their parts, I know, but it bothers me and makes me want to shake people even though I can’t barely move my arms in an athletic way when I am in that condition with so many pills in me.
So these are the two farthest places I go and even though they are so different, they feel really just the same for the way I am weak and have no power in either place. Even though on one side he’s here and on the other side, he’s not, it’s never me alone in myself. I live my whole life trying to skip enough pills to feel in the middle somewhere, just enough to keep him at bay, not all the way gone.
When I first moved in with Ms. Rose, I’d watch Ronnie from the window where she’d set me up to do things in the kitchen. She wouldn’t let me touch a knife then, but she’d set me up with peas to slide out of their shell with my thumb, later maybe cherries and her old dull silver pitter. Ronnie’d be out on Ms. Eva’s steps like he had no bones, his body just poured down the formstone stairs, legs spilled open and elbows kickstanded behind to hold him up. He looked like there wasn’t a thing knotted up inside him, like he could just spill himself out anywhere without thinking twice. Back then I was strung so tight I couldn’t talk to people at all, ever. I’d look from between the crack in the kitchen curtains over my shuck and save bowls at Ronnie all oozed out on the stoop like he was king of the block. He’d look at pretty women who walked by without ever lowering his eyes. I’d see his lips moving without hearing his words, but I knew what kind of thing he was saying. Mostly they ignored him. Sometimes they looked mad, and sometimes I watched their lips moving saying something mad. One girl I saw came a few times. She’d walk right up and stand between his legs and touch his knees. Then they’d go inside, and after a while she’d come outside alone and walk back in the same direction she came from. I hardly blinked watching the door for her to come out. I wanted to be inside where they were. I wanted to see what they were doing. I wanted to do it, too. It looked like a game with rules, the way he was kind of going fishing for women out there. I wanted him to catch me.
One time I was getting out of Ms. Rose’s car and Ronnie whistled at me from across the street. I felt it deep inside of me. I saw him looking. He didn’t look away. Everything in my body got hot and went up to my head. Ms. Rose cussed under her breath but she pretended she didn’t hear it and she hustled me into the house. I kept thinking how I should’ve just walked right across the street real casual and stepped between his legs like that other girl did. That’s what he was asking me to do when he whistled, and I wanted so bad to show him that I knew.
How to see from behind my eyes the way normal people see from behind theirs. These ones who go around in cars with each other, live in houses with each other, cook each other food, wash all their underpants and socks in the same loads, buy each other birthday presents, buy ribbon at the store and tie bows around these presents. I feel like I am not even the same kind of person as these people. How do they know how to do all this? How do ALL of them know how to do all this? Block after block, house after house, of people who meet each other and decide they want to live together and have babies and birthday cakes and all that together. He tells me it’s because I am chosen not to. Because I am special.
It usually shows up later, Dr. Alfonse said, especially in girls. Later teens, early twenties. I was fifteen when it started. Special. Different, just like he says. It’s not supposed to be as bad in women. But it’s pretty bad in me.
I try and get used to it but then I get to feeling lonely again. I was feeling lonely when I saw Ronnie again through the window. Like he was the answer to a question I had been asking for a long time. Where do I belong? Where is the place I can step in and feel right?
In my head he laughs when I start going like this. Ronnie back from being locked up for whatever it was he’d done.
I don’t care about that what he did, whatever it was.
Then that day with the snakes on my board I saw Ronnie out there and Ms. Rose was not home and Ms. Eva’s car wasn’t there either and I went right out the front door without thinking. In my head was him laughing really mean and it went to yelling but I didn’t listen, wouldn’t lose my chance. Ronnie stood up and watched me come over. He raised his hands up in the air so they floated next to his ears. Hey whoa now, you trying to cut me? I didn’t know what he was talking about but then I remembered I’d been chopping the peppers and I still had the knife in my hand. Then he saw I was as surprised to see it as he was, and he lowered his hands. I couldn’t really see his face because the sun was bright behind him. He had on a do-rag just like one of Ms. Rose’s even though he was bald underneath. And white like me, so nothing really to set in place even if there was. I forgot to wash it, I said, which was true, and then I slid the knife in the back pocket of my jeans like this was a place I was used to putting it, though I never had before, and I knew it would probably make a hole. What are you rushing for? he said. You got something going on?
We were talking like we knew each other, but there was only the one time he’d whistled. I didn’t know if he knew my name. I didn’t know if he knew that I knew his. In my head was laughing, yelling, yelling, laughing. But I stayed put. I rooted my feet in the sidewalk, felt them heavy and holding me.
He sat back down on Ms. Eva’s steps and I could see him better. That’s when I saw that all that blue was pictures, not sickness. There was a naked woman with her nipples and head tilted up sideways to the sky like Jesus on the cross. She was coming up his chest from under his shirt, her hair winding up his neck. It was hard not to stare, so I just decided to stare. I asked him if it hurt. He touched his hand where I pointed and craned his head down like he was trying to see her even though there was no way he could see her like that. As he stood there craning his neck, I thought, he would never see her like that and never had, so why was he acting like he might be able to? Was he pretending? Or did he think he could? Did he think maybe with me there he’d be able for the first time?
Yeah, he said. The neck on the side like that, that’s the worst– got the most nerves closest to the surface. He sounded proud, and he rubbed at it like it still hurt, even though she’d been there long enough that she was fading, her nipples soft clouds rather than points.
You got any? he asked, meaning tattoos, looking down then back up my body like he was trying to use X-ray vision to see the answer. I could feel his eyes like they were fingers going over my skin under my clothes. Then Ms. Eva’s car came up the block and I ran back across the street and shut the door behind me and sat down on the couch to let my heart slow down and the knife cut my rear end through my pants.
What people say about Ronnie is that he burned down the blind man around the corner’s house on purpose. That he stole his sister Kelly’s wedding dress and chopped it up into pieces and put the pieces in a box with her name on it for Christmas, with her wedding supposed to be New Year’s Day. Another something horrible while everyone was at church for Easter. How he stole from Ms. Eva, not because he was on any drugs or anything like that, not that he didn’t have her roof over his head as it was, but just because who knew. And about Ms. Eva’s great-niece Stasia who I’ve never seen and who nobody really talks about, more like they remind each other and then drop it.
Remember with Stasia, they might say, low, to where they think I can’t hear.
Don’t know what Eva’s thinking taking him in, they say. It’s dangerous. It’s not smart. He’s crazy.
That’s what they say.
It’s what they say about me, too.
They bring up Stasia and get quiet, serious. I hear all this whenever they come over, Maude and Janet down the street, Janet’s husband, Bill. Ms. Rose and her friends talk around me and forget I am there, forget that the thing wrong with me is not that I’m retarded. People do this a lot when they know about me or have heard about me. They talk to me loud and slow like I’m deaf. Like deaf and nuts is the same thing.
Bill comes sometimes when Ms. Rose isn’t home. He’s never come by himself when she is home. He acts like he’s looking for Ms. Rose, even though her car isn’t out front, so he must know she isn’t home, and even though he never comes alone when she’s here, only with Janet. And then, Ms. Rose is expecting them. She’s picked up some six-packs, sent me to Safeway for a can of peanuts. Alone, he lets himself in with Janet’s key and he talks to me.
What’s she got you working on today, he says, like we’re buddies.
She sure keeps you busy, huh, and he opens the fridge like it’s okay to do this, but he would never open her fridge if she were home. You don’t just open a person’s fridge. If I go to lift something little as a stick of butter he asks if I need help lifting or moving or reaching it. He watches me. He doesn’t know another thing to say to make conversation. I know Janet does not know he comes over alone.
Once I’ve gone long enough with no pills, there’s no way I can laugh, even if a thing is funny. I am too scared all the time and I can’t tell what deserves my real fear. I could start laughing and not be able to stop it, like that oil spill in the ocean, Gulf Horizon. Just pumping and pumping and you don’t know where the end of it will be. Day after day on the news still pumping away. What will happen by the time the end of the oil comes. Things starting to change out of the blue. The kids floating. People saying things to me on the street without opening their mouths. Him getting meaner and meaner. It is hard when it gets like this and I can’t sleep and I get tired and it gets very hard to hide from Ms. Rose that I am not taking the pills. I slip them in the corners of my bra and sometimes at the end of the day when I take my bra off the pill will stick to my skin for a while then fall off and make a little skitter noise like mice on the wood floor and scare me because I forgot it was there. Ms. Rose tells me there’s no way I can hear mice on the floor, but I can, I can. I give up trying to tell her this, or anything, because what’s the use.
I avoid Ms. Rose. When she’s waking up, I jump in bed. When she’s going to bed, I get up. I can get away with it for a while. A week, two.
Ms. Rose sometimes slips into talking to me in that loud slow way, but I know that’s when she’s worried about me, when I’ve been skipping pills. She is nice. Just blind, as in can’t see important things, moments that are happening. She drinks too much beer. Sometimes she looks at me like she really sees me and cares about me, but other times she is laughing at things on the TV like on National Geographic once there was a show with a giant squid slapped on the deck of a ship; it was nighttime and dark as the deep part of the ocean this squid came from, and all these scientist people, they call themselves, some fancy kind of scientist, to cover up the horrible things they do, in their black rubber suits and masks still on, some of them, so you can’t even see their faces. They all were standing around it happy they got it caught, happy it was theirs. Ms. Rose said: that’s a whole bunch of calamari they’re having for dinner tonight!
I can’t believe she or anyone would laugh at this. What is funny about something like this? I get angry. I get so angry, and I don’t know where to put this angry feeling that stays in me, it doesn’t fade like Ronnie’s tattoos, it just sits sharp there inside of me.
Did you know a squid has three hearts? That’s something I learned from this show with the squid. Three hearts. The two hearts filtering what comes into the one really important one. A slick voice was telling everything, not getting in the least upset about the poor squid slapped on the deck of that ship. Now this now that and now about how a squid has three hearts and Ms. Rose cracking herself up saying that’s a whole lot of calamari for dinner. She laughed and laughed and didn’t notice or care that I was not laughing.
How do people eat squid? They call it calamari and kiss their little babies and children in their beds and don’t think maybe if someone wanted to eat them they would just call them some different silly name, call their fat little babies some different silly name, and then they would cook them and eat them and their hearts and stomachs and ears and not think a thing further about the matter.
This is what I am thinking sometimes when I look at Ms. Rose. She seems nice, but that is just one part of her. There are always hidden parts of people. I know this is true. Even of me.
I was washing dishes when he came. There’s nothing to do here but watch TV or get busy with something in the kitchen. The best thing is to cook, but if there’s no cooking to do I wash dishes, Swiffer the dust. I can always find something. Then there he was and he came around the counter for me. He didn’t say a word. Not a drop of that chit-chat. This was different. He grabbed me by the muscle part of both my arms and pulled me close to his body. His big body was soft and warm like it was about to melt. He pulled me back by the arms and I looked into his face and then I could see he was one of the lion men. He opened his jaws and I felt heat come out, then I got dizzy and couldn’t feel the world around me anymore.
When I could see again, I was on the floor and he was gone. He laughed in my head and told me I need to get a grip and I will always be alone like this if I can’t tell what’s real and what’s not.
I have not seen Bill since then. I thought maybe the whole thing was a trick that didn’t happen at all, except for the fact that he disappeared, which was as strange as what happened in the kitchen. I didn’t see him anywhere. Not in the street talking to anyone, not with Janet when she came over. He laughed in my head, and he was the one who tried to convince me nothing happened, that it wasn’t Bill who came that day.
It all started to really fall apart then. I didn’t know if there was someone standing in front of me or not. Didn’t know who was who they said they were. I could climb up in-between the jaws of one of these lions and it would eat me up, or maybe it wouldn’t be a lion, it would be Bill. Which would be worse than one of the lion-men, and I think it already happened, but I can’t even say for sure. When it gets like this, I get to wanting a pill. In all the racket in my head, I need some quiet like you need water in the desert in a cartoon. Flat like a pancake sliding across the hot sand for water, slapped on top of a fishing boat people on the other side of the TV screen laughing at you while you die.
Come here, he says to me, the next time I see him. He clucks his tongue on the inside of his teeth like somebody’s grandmother in a nice movie where there are nice old sweet grandmothers. I saw him and walked over, just like that first time with my knife.
Come here, he says again. You want to sit with me? Come over here and sit with me.
I can’t answer but I walk over and sit next to him, leave some inches between us.
Closer, he says, and pulls me with his arm and closes the distance, his side warm through his clothes against mine. His arm over my shoulders and it feels like a roof over my brain. It just weighs down everything happening in there. I sit and he keeps clucking in that way. I am so grateful for him. These people out here don’t know what they’re talking about Ronnie, just like I thought. You can’t believe everything you hear.
You’re alright, girl he says. You’re okay.
And I think this must feel like what it would feel like to have a mother. Or a husband. He knows me and I didn’t have to tell him anything about me. How does he know I need telling I’m alright and I’m okay? How does he understand I need this now?
I am so grateful I cry. I cry and cry.
He turns and leans forward to look in my eyes. Puts my face between my hands and wipes my tears away with his thumbs. His eyes are green. Crinkled on the skin at the corners outside them. This close I can see the blue over his eyes used to be words but I can’t read them now because they are blurry and also my tears are blurring everything. He unrolls his tongue into my mouth, wet and moving around. I open my mouth wider. He keeps at it like he’s doing something particular with rules I don’t understand, and I let him. Inside my head is quiet. His front teeth bump-click against my front teeth. My skin where his mouth touches gets warm and wet, and when his mouth moves away it gets cold and then when it comes back it feels so good to get warm again all my nerves get warm and now I understand how sex happens. I never understood this before. Ronnie stops all of a sudden like something got decided in our mouths. He looks in my eyes, then at the street. I am proud I could do that. We sit and sit with me under his arm for a long time and inside my head is quiet. Under his arm for a while I feel safe until I need to jump and scream and just like that my good time is over.
I cut my body forward through the air and feel it stick to me. I know I carry the outside air in with me, and that this air carries pieces of Ronnie’s voice. His spit. Minuscule particles of the air I bring inside Ms. Rose’s house have touched the woman coming up his neck, and touched the tips of his knees. I breathe in deep to bring some more air inside me. Little beads of air go in my nose that have ridden on the backs of the mice that have their run of the kitchen when they think I can’t see them; this air holds tiny wet sparks of the snakes I’ve killed, now inside me where they’ll live the rest of their lives. The bubbles get crazier rubbing against each other and I’m panting. I am Ronnie’s naked neck woman. I am the squid. I lose my bones and slide into a pancake on the floor of the ship. I wait for someone to help me and at the same time I’m so scared of anyone who will come. I wait and remember Ronnie’s arm pushing down on my shoulders and for a minute it helps but after another minute nothing helps and there’s nothing that will.
Tamar Jacobs lives in Philadelphia. Her short stories have appeared in Glimmer Train Stories, The Louisville Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Grist, and other publications. Her flash fiction has appeared, and is forthcoming, in the Akashic Books series “Terrible Twosdays.” She placed second in a Glimmer Train Stories “Short Story Award for New Writers” contest, and is a Katherine Anne Porter Fiction Prize winner. She is seeking a home for a poetry collection, and for a novel, from which “At Bay” is excerpted.
Illustrations by Devan Murphy