Stage Four

 

by Kate Wisel

Featured Art: “Neurons, No. 3” by Madara Mason

 

What I did was held my hand out like a gun and sprayed. I was supposed to be wiping down tables. But there was something about walking through the pink mist, I can’t tell you the feeling. That clinical smell that clung to my neck like antiseptic perfume. At that time and that time only, I liked doing the opposite of what I was told.

I was breathing in the rinsed air when this guy wandered in and crouched down at the end of the bar. He was in a white blouse with one of those dog-chain gang-rape necklaces gleaming down his neck. I watched him, a bold move that made him turn to me as he tapped his combat boot on the leg of the stool.

“What are you doing?” he said. I set the cleaner down.

“What are you wearing?” I came back with. I contemplated his soft-spoken British accent, his inflection so authentic I thought I could hear it in a voiceover. He just sat there looking like someone from the past, like Steven Tyler, the pouty-lipped version from my mom’s old and broken records. I started wiping beer puddles with a stiff rag across the laminate, afraid I might actually get in trouble this time.

“Tell me, who’s in charge here?” the guy said.

I glanced at my boss, the manager of Bukowski Tavern, this nice kid named Larry who sat on a bar stool by the door. Not to check ID’s but strictly just to stare out the window like a lapdog. His hair was going prematurely wispy and he kept one leg on the floor with the visible outline of his penis through his gray sweatpants. I grimaced.

“That would be me,” I said, making my way behind the bar.

“Young lady,” he said secretively, bending forward like we were on the surveillance. “Care to route an old fashioned my way?”

He tipped back on the stool so his ladies’ blouse slid up and for a second I wished he would tip all the way back, get embarrassed then scatter out of my bar.

“Who are those for?” he asked. He pointed to the tiny pairs of stockings hanging from the top liquor shelf, the Christmas decorations Larry hadn’t bothered taking down. The stockings were ice skates, bowed and pink. He wanted me embarrassed.

“They’re for Nancy Kerrigan,” I said.

He had no idea what I was talking about so I just ignored him, wet the sugar then crushed and stirred the way Larry taught me on my first day when I handed him a W2 and my fake ID. I turned back briskly for a touch of drama, held up a crinkled plastic bottle of soda water. I let it fizz to the top till I felt him looking at me, deep, like it didn’t occur to him that a stare like that could hurt me. A stare that recognized how bad I was at pretending. I screwed the cap back on and kept my eyes low.

“Emma Chizit,” he said.

“Who?” I said.

“Ow, much, is it?” he said.

When I smiled, he said, “Are you having a laugh?” and I nodded my head, noticing the Rice Pilaf coloration to his front teeth.

I said, “Ten bucks,” rounding up because I could. When he looked at me sideways, fishing through his pockets, I said, “Cheers,” and reminded myself of the tube-topped waitresses I saw in movies when I was a kid at sleepovers. Girls who leaned in and winked at their regulars like plastered ads on billboards. Those nights I’d miss my mom so much that I’d lay awake on a trundle bed convinced she was getting hit by a car, or the one hitting—right that second—though it was two in the morning and I knew she was home, asleep on the couch with the light from the TV pouring over the bottles of Carlo Rossi on the coffee table. The QVC ladies sweeping mops across the floor, their mouths moving on mute: this broom will change your life, I guarantee it.

“I just returned from this festival called Pitchfork,” the guy said. “Have you heard?”

“No,” I said. I leaned my palms against the bar and stretched my calves. The balls of my heels going up and down as I thought of how many calories I could be burning. He tapped his dirt-etched fingers on the bar then ran them through his hair. It was long and coarse with streaks of gray running through.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Villy,” he said, twirling a toothpick between his fingers.

“Billy?” I said.

“No. But I like the way you think,” he said. “Will you come with me?”

He wiped his lip with a silky sleeve then turned out his palm. I looked at Larry with his eyes closed and his arms crossed and his mouth open to the point of almost fogging the window and after a few seconds I heard this other girl inside me say, “Sure.”

After we ducked into a cab and Villy called out, “To the races!” and the Pakistani cab driver shook his head, spit out the window, then shot into traffic, Larry called me eight times and left three voicemails, one asking if I was in the restroom, the second to update me on the fact that he had checked the restroom and that there was shit in the toilet which was also technically my job to clean, and the third to tell me to come the fuck back to work or he’d fire me and he really didn’t want to do that. I told you he was nice.

We left the cab after Villy tossed some fives towards the dashboard. “This way,” he said, as we cruised through the automatic doors at the Prudential. In the elevator, he pressed me against the mirrored wall and kissed me, all the way to the fifty second floor. The elevator stopped twice as people shuffled through but we were in and out of each other’s eyes, every look a dare, and the people that moved around us felt far as planets.

At Top of the Hub, a man in a black bowtie played a cello in the corner, his arm dipping to scrape the strings, his torso convulsing theatrically. The waiter glanced at my lower half. I was in torn jeans and a black apron. I thought to crawl to the table. Beyond the blue reflective glass, buildings sat below us like a village of batteries. Villy took his time with the wine list as sweat fell between my boobs in the lines a necklace makes.

Outside, smiling as I accidentally burped, the taste of grape juice in the air, Villy lifted me up so our noses touched in one long goodbye. His hair smelled like smoke, when you light the wrong end of the filter. Instead of pulling a penny from my ear, he slid a pair of sunglasses from his sleeve then perched them on my ears.

“Ray Charles,” he said, “I wish you luck getting home.”

Boston is small, meaning you can go far without actually going far, so I walked the fuck back to work after I blindly wrote my number on Villy’s forearm with a green permanent marker he extracted from his coat pocket along with a packet of ketchup, which he also let me keep.

Villy and I started going on dates—strictly at hotels with names like Alibi or The Envoy. It was like something I didn’t order but came in the mail anyway, Villy: a man, one who smelled wine before he drank it, who thought the New England Patriots were colonists, not the spandex-wearing beef-balls on the flat screen at my bar. Plus, his name stuck to the tip of my tongue so I could say it in my mind over and over until it crashed into itself, Villy Villy Vilililily.

He wore fitted, wallpaper suits and brown and green braided bracelets that I assumed some topless woman tied to his wrists at Pitchfork. I wore Serena’s black dress, the one she kept on the floor of her closet after her father’s wedding, and each time a different sweater in the hopes Villy wouldn’t notice. If he did, he didn’t let on, because one night, when I climbed into the cab outside my mom’s house, he said, “You look positively smashing.”

“And where are you going?” my mom asked before I dipped. She tapped her cigarette into a mug, the kiss of her orange lipstick stained on the brim.

“Does it matter?” I said.

I saw the cancer I saw in her lungs like a seismic monitor, the red orbs blinking across the length of her chest then up her throat, curling out her lips like contagious neon smoke.

“You shouldn’t smoke,” I added.

“Does it matter?” she said, her throat so dry that she began to cough like a barking seal. I took advantage and slipped out the front door.

On our third date Villy cued the waitress and she bent down to his lips as he cocked his head back to her ear, the sharp line of his jaw moving up and down just slightly. It was the first time I can remember feeling jealous, like this creamy-skinned waitress was jotting her pen directly into my heart, carving something intricate and critical there that I would never be able to see. Villy was pointing to the dimly lit calligraphy, one leg crossed over the other, his arms hanging loose on either side of the upholstered chair as her blond hair hung like a fancy curtain around his head.

“Fantastic!” he said as she tucked the menu back under her arm. He’d ordered vinegar fries with aioli that swirled at the top and I was impressed, though later I learned the sauce is just mayonnaise that went to college.

The drinks between us were twirling pink and bubbling as he stared at me for melodramatic pauses like a psychologist. I wanted to mimic his pose, challenge his notion of himself back, but under his gaze I felt like a broken toll, anything could pass through me. Satisfied with my blankness, he’d lurch forward to take my hands.

“You’re blushing,” he said.

“It’s rosacea.”

“I used to work as the creative director at an ad agency when I lived in London,” he said. “Before that an intellectual property lawyer.”

I squinted as I chewed my straw. I couldn’t picture either, but I liked all those words strung together, property and intellectual, director and agency. Also lived. When I lived somewhere. I hadn’t lived anywhere but with my mom in our same split-level off the highway with the above-ground pool in the back, the whir of cars from Route 9 making coastal sounds through the rotting fence.

“My father was a plastic surgeon,” he said. I think my face dropped because he said, “Not like that. He’s retired now. He performed rare and complex surgeries for children with cleft palates. Do you know what those are?”

“Children?” I said.

He loosened his jaw. “Fissures around the lips,” he pointed.

“I’ve seen that,” I said. “On commercials.”

“So, I lived in Nicaragua. My mum, she was a photographer for Italian Vogue but shot miniatures in her spare time.” He lifted my hands from the table and they dangled, pale and reflexive.

“She’s going to love you,” he said. “You have such Lilliputian wrists!”

Then he grew serious; he looked at me acutely as he held his drink to the side.

“They could be on display,” he said, “at a museum.”

I don’t know why, it was the weirdest thing, but I started to cry.

Outside, we stood pressed together under a blue awning. Villy had his coat collar turned up and it outlined his neck like a cape, his sideburns dark and artificial looking. He marched ahead to wave down a cab, clasping his thumb and forefinger around my wrist like a bracelet. My heels scraped against the black ice, the wind slicing past my cheeks like welcome razorblades.

The first time I went back to Villy’s apartment I stayed for four months straight. I only took the bus home once for a backpack to fill with clothes and makeup. It was just getting to be spring and the grass in my front lawn bent in frost-laced patches. My mom’s sister’s red Corolla was parked on the curb. I walked through the back, the porch I’d painted the last summer already chipping where the wood curved, two of the rails broken and damp from spring rain.

My aunt had sprayed Febreze to mask the sweet smell of vomit from the bathroom hallway. Her wooden clogs clunked across the floor of my mom’s bedroom and echoed like trees falling in dreams. Outside the door I listened as the sheets shifted. My mom’s steady wheezing was that of an extraterrestrial.

My aunt hung onto the doorway of my bedroom as I hurled bras into a duffel bag. She had the laundry basket balanced on her hip and her glasses strung by beads down her neck. I despised how well she played nurse when my mom had been one for the better part of her life. Now her cough was breaking through the hallway.

When my aunt asked me if I was in school, I lied.

When she asked where I was going, I lied.

When she asked if I would call my mom when I got there, I told her the truth. I said, “No.”

Villy said, “After you, little wing,” and we stepped into his building for the first time in Dorchester, across the street from a Mobile station. The stairway was dark and smelled like Indian food and ash. I thought I could hear a baby crying from down the hall. Villy tossed his keys on the counter and flicked on a twitching kitchen light. I think he was nervous as I walked the length of his studio apartment because he offered to make Oysters Rockefeller. He also had bacon. I said that would be fine. He clicked on the stove.

I recognized the Kirkland-labeled dish soap and the flimsy look of Costco furniture, the gleam of the screws on the outside of his bookshelf. Villy had tacked silky, emerald green sheets above the windows to resemble the inside of a nightclub. Bacon crackled in the stove like Pop Rocks as Villy forked out strips then set a plate down on an oak barrel he kept in front of a red leather reclining chair. He uncorked a bottle of red wine and we clinked glasses.

“Salut,” he said.

“What?” I said.

“Ha!” he said, tucking the hair behind my ears. “It’s like I found you on Star Search.”

We shared the sunken recliner, flipping through the channels on his tiny TV. I nibbled at the burnt bacon and he let me pick a rerun of Sex and the City, one of those early episodes where Carrie’s hair is genius-crazy and she’s always saying, “I got to thinking…”

It was the first time I felt like his girlfriend because he had his arm around my shoulder and kissed me right on my neck freckle every minute or two.

“You know,” I said, looking to him, “I always thought I was a Charlotte, until that one episode where Miranda eats cake from the trash.”

He let me finish the bottle of syrupy wine. I slurred something about loving him then went to the bathroom to yak. The toilet looked like some reckless girl had her period as Villy held my hair back.

“I’m sorry,” I said, my voice echoing in the bowl.

“Oh Ray, you’ve only spilled your drink.”

By the end of that first week we had a routine. Every morning we would lie around listening to records and I would try not to think of my mom, what the doctor said about the dark blood that stained at the corners of her mouth as if she’d done her lipstick while turning off an exit on the highway. It was the hardest then because it was the only time it was bright in Villy’s apartment and I could see things exactly as they were: toothpaste uncapped in the bathroom, the kitchen sink brimming over with streaked glasses, the spill of sun on the twisted sheet, the scare of Villy’s dyed hair peeking through.

It was the first few minutes of morning, when you look around and there’s light everywhere, so much light you can see particles floating towards you as you blink, and you piece yourself together object by object: the toothpaste in that bathroom is mine, I drank from those glasses in the sink, the breathing man under the warm sheets is now speaking to me.

Villy liked to give me what he thought was a proper education, which mostly had to do with good wine and good records, strictly vinyl. Band of Gypsies was second best to Are You Experienced. Bridges to Babylon made the Rolling Stones sell-outs. He banned the TV and liked to pace around as if he was standing in front of a chalkboard. I’d have on one of his button ups as a dress, a hole stabbed in one of his old belts to make a tight notch, my knees clutched together on the side of the recliner. I’d go to work at night at Bukowski Tavern then come back on the last bus to Villy’s with a to-go bag of soggy French fries to split.

Each week that passed, I noticed something new and ridiculous about Villy that I hadn’t before. His fashionably advanced garments started to look like discounted neon windbreakers on an Urban Outfitter’s rack.

One day, after he wiped down my back with a dress sock, he said, “I’d like to institute a new method to our lovemaking—condoms.” He said this as I crouched in front of his antique floor-length mirror, looking at him looking somewhere far off, shirtless and gleaming like he’d just made a new rule as king.

Villy said he’d been laid off because of the economy but instead of applying for jobs he sat on the recliner with a pipe between his lips.

He said, “Ray. We need to mobilize resources.”

This meant selling the recliner outside his building to a pregnant chick for twenty bucks. I helped her lift it onto the bus. When her T-shirt rose the purple swell to her bellybutton looked like a black eye.

I lost my Boston accent but regained it when we fought. Sometimes six fights a day. I have to admit, the fighting was exciting. It made me feel proactive, like I was using some kind of gym membership, rhetorical kickboxing.

One day I made PB&J and Villy said, “Ray, that’s not the correct knife to spread the marmalade.”

I pointed the knife to his chest. “Then what kind of knife is it?” I said through my teeth.

Villy looked down at me, his hair in all directions. “The jagoff bar you work at. What’s it called again? Is it called Smart Little Bitch’s?”

I’d bring him tea in bed and he’d look at me like I pissed in it. “Did you make this with the Boston water you grew up on? You’re derailing my morning process.”

“Strange,” I said, “last time I checked it was four o’clock.”

“You need to be one hundred percent nicer,” Villy said, whipping off the sheets.

“Do you want to go to lunch? Or dinner at this point. I’ll pay,” I offered.

“Every now and then,” Villy said, cupping my face, “you say something worthy. Then we give you a lot of praise and we move on.”

Instead of going to dinner he opted to gift me with a joint-rolling lesson.

“Not a psychobabble amount, Ray. Roll it like a pinner.”

“A what?

“A real toothpick of a joint.”

“Jesus,” I muttered, “I think I might not have graduated from the same finishing school.”

I started to wonder—how could Villy be so poor and pretentious at the same time? Where was he getting money from, when he wasn’t getting money from me? We had sixty-six bucks from my last paycheck at Whiskey Priest. Larry had fired me a week earlier because Villy would walk in during my shifts just to sit at the end of the bar and stare at me.

“Alright,” Larry said finally, after Villy had flicked a Maraschino cherry at my head and missed. “You’re done.”

Before I left for good I had to wait at the end of the bar for twenty minutes till my French fries resurfaced in the fryolator.

“I already fucking ordered them!” I screamed from the other side of the window as Villy held his palms up outside then paced the sidewalk with a cigarette perched on both ears. That was during the second month, month two, and I couldn’t even look at Larry. Larry didn’t look at me either. He never had, anyway.

But Villy found something out when he looked over my shoulder as I was depositing that last paycheck at the ATM. I had nineteen hundred bucks sitting smack in my savings from a school loan before my mom got sick and I dropped out of community college. I’d skipped a grade and was young for a freshman, seventeen.

“Technically, it’s not usable. It’s not real money,” I explained to Villy as we sat on his front steps watching the morning bus lurch by. “Because it’s a loan and because I’m going to go back.”

“Everything is real, Pilgrim,” Villy said, tapping my forehead. “Nothing is not real. Do you know what solipsism means?”

He tried to tuck my hair behind my ear but I blew smoke in his face.

“I’m not in college, so no,” I said. “And you’re an asshole.”

“Calling me names, Ray, is just another naked plea for rules and consequences, of which you have none.”

I obviously didn’t know what solipsism meant or why anyone would use it in an actual argument, but I knew that my loan money was untouchable. Villy could not convince me otherwise. I pictured emptying my savings to let cash soar on the wind through his fingers, the discolored triangles of his teeth gleaming insanely. The money I’d left for my mom in the breadbox when I was fifteen so the Jeep wouldn’t get repossessed, all that money I’d saved so she could drink piss wine, and now she was truly sick and where was I? That money could be for her if I let myself think about it long enough, which I couldn’t.

“Never mind. You were right. It means nothing is real,” he said. “Which is why you’re not going back to school, Ray.” He fingered my dangling handcuff earring then flicked it.

“What are you talking about?” I said. He sighed as I palmed a tear from my cheek.

I became not allowed to answer the phone. Villy would leave and the phone would ring and I’d pick up.

“I told you not to answer the phone,” Villy would say, on the other end.

“God,” I’d say. Then, “Where in the living Christ of hell are you?”

“Meet me at the bar,” he’d say, wildly out of breath before hanging up.

Let me consult my pride, I’d think, and get back to you.

We fought about the phone and the not-real money and other things, on the cold concrete stair case as we stubbed out cigarettes like we were killing ants and his neighbors tiptoed over us, or at the late-night movie we snuck into then got kicked out of for starting a screaming match during the previews as the mice darted through the aisles.

“Why do you swear so much, princess?” Villy whispered, the sick smell of butter on his breath.

“Because fuck you!”

One time—I swore I saw him stealing shiny blocks of butter from the high-end grocery store he made us go to at least twice a week. He slipped three of them into his messenger bag, just one after the other like he was rescuing kittens. I glared at him while we stood in line, and when he peered into my basket he raised his voice at me.

“Fuji apples?” he said. The checkout girl with the maroon vest and the nametag that read “Mandy” peeked up at us.

“I told you. Pink Lady.” When I wouldn’t look at him he tapped out the syllables on my forehead. “Pink. La-dy,” he repeated. “What are you, demented?”

I waited on the bench by the Coinstar while Villy went to the bathroom, probably to steal toilet paper, when checkout Mandy walked up to me. She had bangs that looked like they’d been blow-dried sometime in the early nineties and then preserved right like that on her forehead.

“Hi,” she said, the bright zits on her jawline looking about as unsanitary as a salad bar. When I didn’t respond, she said, “If you wanna job here, or something, I can ask my manager.”

She popped her gum, pink string stuck to her cheek like her tongue exploded exactly where I’d aimed.

“What are you, demented?” I said.

Her bottom lip dropped and started to twitch, which made mine twitch. I kind of wanted to hug her—I hadn’t hugged anyone in a long time. Instead I stormed off and waited for Villy in the parking lot, even though it was drizzling and the heavy brown bags were starting to tear from the bottom. I did need a job. It wasn’t my idea to spend the last of our money on assorted cheese trays and grape seed oil.

When we got home I threw my headphones on and walked out of Villy’s place as he yelled, “Prima!” from the window. I crossed the highway where the strip mall sat with the Staples sign half-lit. I walked all the way to Southie and sat back on one of those rusted up swing-sets by the beach, kicking my feet into the air. The cold was so hostile it made the clouds look like their punishment was to hang there and watch. In my headphones, I had the Schindler’s List theme song blaring on repeat, the one with the trembling violin that sounds like it’s weeping. I felt the bow scrape against my ribcage.

My feet pumping and the soaring forward into the stinging air created the false sensation that I was moving forward. The swings were the one place where time fixed itself. I didn’t want to admit that time had started to feel like a machine, a spaceship going the wrong way. Every moment I was moving back towards being entirely and completely my mother’s.

I got dizzy and kicked to a stop. Also, a kid with a puffy jacket and snot running down his gleaming upper lip had been standing there pouting at me for more than fifteen minutes. I walked dumbly home to Villy’s, amazed and numb by my own capacity for so much sadness. I was floating, trying not to think more about how the heart’s a muscle like any other, one that memorizes its contractions.

Towards the very end, I started to see how strangers saw Villy—and this made me want to die in place of someone else. Instead, I hid myself in his coat just to leap out and startle them. Like the boat driver on the Duck Tour, after we’d been lowered into the water and Villy strode down the aisle and said, “Excuse me! Captain!” like we we’d ordered a car service. “Captain, care to deliver us to Quincy Market?”

“Read the map, chief.”

Villy whipped the hair back from his eyes as we tipped back, the tour driver making a wide, purposeful turn through the dark water. A lady looked up at me from her pamphlet, her lips pursed into the unmistakable shape of an asshole. Instead of asking what she was looking at, I waved my arm at the driver then pointed at Villy and said, “Is your presupposition, chief, that this man is literate?”

I saw it, and I didn’t. Villy made me tea and swirled it with a stick of honey. He came to where I faced the wall, curled up in his bed. The ceiling fan whirred as I pictured myself hanging from it. Villy and I were strangers who had collided with each other on the sidewalk, hard, and I was too tired to get up and walk away.

He slid me to him. He whispered, “Never, never, never, leave me, Booger,” turning my chin like a photographer angling my cheek to the correct light. I half-smiled, the hook. He asked me to go get the mail downstairs, but not if it was bills. I did it, and I noticed the paper slips piling up outside his front door like pizza coupons. I knew he hadn’t been paying rent. There were shades of stupidity that could be attractive to a girl like me. This wasn’t one of them. That same day my mom called as I sat on the edge of the tub fully clothed with the door locked.

“Frankie,” my mom said. I could barely hear her. Her voice was different for being exactly the same. “I need you to do something for me.”

I reached back to turn up the water so I couldn’t hear her but she wouldn’t shut up. I blamed the Dilaudid for slurring her speech, but I was sick of her calling me during blackouts. Demanding I fix things in a voice that was as empty as the tire on the Jeep when she crashed into the fence of a golf course.

What my mother said drunk, on a loop that hurt every time, were clear answers to questions I preferred to keep foggy.

“I hate my life!” she had cried as I pictured the Jeep steaming beside her. “My life is garbage.”

Or when I came home late and she propped herself up to say, her pants wet with piss, “You are the last person I want to see.”

“You are an embarrassment,” I said. I hung up, a habit I can barely talk about.

I kept seeing Villy long after I left his apartment on a Tuesday, my toothbrush, bra, and deodorant tied in a plastic CVS bag. I waited stone-faced by the bus stop while Villy hung his head out the third-floor window and sang “Helpless” as he flicked a cigarette from a pack of American Spirits I’d left on the counter.

I slightly broke my composure and screamed, “Shut the hell up you motherfucking fuck!”

“And in my mind, I still need a place to go, all my changes were there,” he crooned. I hurled my plastic bag up to the window but it made a low arc then dropped at my feet.

“Where are my oysters?” I screamed.

My cheeks were burnt with tears, but the one I was screaming at was myself. I’d caved. I’d taken out the rest of my school savings, the not-real money now really real, and paid two months-worth of Villy’s rent. I felt like a kid who was being kept inside during summer vacation, which in a way, I was. It was June and unusually hot and everyone had their windows thrown open, which made Villy’s strangely on-key serenade all the more humiliating.

In July, the week my mom died, I stayed with Villy for the actual last time. This I can tell you because it’s all I remember: he took me to the Mobile station across the street, the farthest I could walk. I asked him to hide me in the long coat he wore despite the heat, and he did. We walked the aisles in stumbling stride, me shoeless in Villy’s coat with my tiptoes on his dress shoes. He kept me wrapped up as he picked out Hostess cupcakes and ghost-shaped mac n’ cheese along with twenty dollars-worth of Tylenol PM. We ate the cupcakes on the curb and I cried.

“It’s too hot out,” I said, my nose running.

The electricity had been shut off at Villy’s. He said I was starting to depress him so we both took three PMs as we walked the dark, lonely streets, as many stars in the sky as we had cigarettes left. Villy didn’t care where we went but I did. I led the sleepiest way as if we were crossing a time zone. Some movie where the plane flies over the ocean. The cabin is dark. Passenger’s heads are slumped on stranger’s shoulders and it’s impossible to tell if that is peace or the moment before the crash. At the swing-set the Atlantic rumbled a mesh-colored white. Villy stood behind me with his fingers over mine on the chains. A plastic bag was caught in a tree branch, rippling and translucent. I kicked like I wanted to leave the world, because at the time I thought I could.

The other day I got a call from a telemarketer while I was unscrewing a lightbulb. I stayed on the line for forty-five minutes.

“As you may or may not know, Walker Oil is one of the best-known oil companies in Massachusetts, with a reputation for high-quality oil, excellent maintenance service, and timely delivery. Mrs. Adams, could you tell me if you use oil, gas, or electric heat at your home?”

I stepped down from the ladder. “We use oil,” I said.

Outside the kitchen window, fresh snow, the swing set’s slide a white tongue.

“Fantastic! While oil burners are fuel-efficient workhorses, they do need regular maintenance. Tell me, Ray, have you had your burner inspected in the past six months?”

“No,” I said. “I haven’t?”

My daughter was watching something she shouldn’t have been and laughed sadistically from the other room. I swung open the fridge to sober myself. Inside, a half-eaten PB&J sandwich.

“I would like one of our service people to stop by so that you can take advantage of our free inspection.”

“To take advantage?” I said, my mind as white as the snow on the slide.

“Precisely,” he said.

Earlier, chewing on that crust, my daughter had answered, “Good, not great,” when I asked her how it tasted. It could not have occurred to her that an answer like that could hurt me.

“You could’ve just lied,” I said, kneeling to look into her eyes, my thumbs making an impression on her wrists. “Say it was great.”

 

 


Kate Wisel is a native of Boston. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in publications that include Gulf Coast, Tin House Online, Redivider as winner of the Beacon Street Prize, and elsewhere. Her collection of linked stories called Driving in Cars with Homeless Men is forthcoming from University of Pittsburgh Press as winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize. She currently lives in Madison as the Carol Houck Fiction Fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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